They came to the Grandparents as Parents Support Group to share and to learn. And not all of them are grandparents. What they have in common is the joy and the burden of caring for children who need them.
They were there to hear about legal options and obligations involved in custody, guardianship and adoption. And while there was obvious interest in the speaker’s information, it was his willingness to get personal that created an instant connection with his audience.
“I have some first-hand knowledge of what you’re going through,” said attorney Dennis Francis. “My 2½-year-old grandson was born addicted. He was in the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) at UT Medical Center for 30 days.”
He asked if anyone else had experience with children who had been exposed to drugs and alcohol. Hands went up all over the room.
Experts say that nationally, a baby is born every 25 minutes with an opioid addiction, and that in Tennessee the problem is three times worse than that.
The GAP group met at First Baptist Church (after being treated to an excellent dinner in the fellowship hall) and was put together by Tracy Van de Vate, a career educator who was hired as manager of the CAC Department on Aging’s Grandparents as Parents (GAP) program last October.
Using available national and state numbers, local census data and Knox County-specific information she has picked up on the job, Van de Vate estimates there are some 73,000 Tennessee children being raised by grandparents or other relatives or friends, and probably 3,000 in Knox County.
“Give or take a lot,” she said, citing one Knox County elementary school that reports 20 percent of its students being raised by someone other than parents.
Francis didn’t sugarcoat the problems.
“We all feel so isolated. You’ve raised your kids – done the best by them you can and thought you were done. You thought you were going to see (your grandchildren) on Sunday afternoons, maybe take them to the park. Now, you are the only thing between them and the Department of Human Services.”
He walked his audience through the pitfalls they’re likely to encounter in juvenile court and talked about the basics:
Find a lawyer or find out about free legal aid clinics – the resources are here. It’s necessary to know the state laws and court regulations that are going to affect your family. Understand the time limits involved and the benefits of having legal custody and the pros and cons of termination of rights. Make a decision about healthcare. Write a will.
“And keep the documents with you. They don’t do you any good if you’re at Myrtle Beach and the documents are in Knoxville when somebody has fallen down and needs stitches. Healthcare providers are reluctant to treat children unless you have authority to bring them to them.
“You have to be more proactive than you want to be. You keep hoping lightning will strike your child and they’ll suddenly have a job and be straight,” Francis said.
Toward the end of the meeting, Francis asked the group what their grandchildren call them:
“Nana.” “Mimi.” And just plain Bob.
Info: Tracy Van de Vate at the Office on Aging, firstname.lastname@example.org or Kathryn S. Ellis at Legal Aid of East Tennessee, 865-637-0484; https://www.laet.org/contact-us/.