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MICHELLE SINGLETARY | THE COLOR OF MONEY

‘Grandfamilies’ deserve our attention and a helping hand

Shutterstock / Pavel Vakhrushev

WASHINGTON — Pardon the interruption.

But may I have your attention for a moment about some serious legislative business that affects family finances? It hasn’t gotten much attention amid the chaos involving the Russia investigation, the White House, and the now-fired FBI director.

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Across the country, there are households headed by grandparents or other relatives taking care of 7.8 million children whose parents may be absent for any number of reasons. These caregivers need our help because, on a real economic level, they save all of us hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The majority of these caregivers are women. And as we pause to celebrate Mother’s Day, we should keep in mind the struggles that many of them face.

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Before Congress now is the Family First Prevention Services Act, a bipartisan bill introduced by Representative Vern Buchanan, Republican of Florida, and co-sponsored by Representative Sander Levin, Democrat of Michigan, and six other members of Congress. If enacted — and it should be — the legislation would allow states to use federal foster-care funds to pay for up to 12 months of family services, including mental health care, family therapy, and parenting-skills training. This broad range of supports could make the difference between children being placed in foster care and getting to stay with their grandparents or other family members.

Senators Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, and Bob Casey, Democrat of Pennsylvania, have introduced the Supporting Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Act, which would create a federal task force to coordinate a one-stop-shop of resources needed by seniors. Figuring out where to go for help is often an issue for grandparents suddenly thrust into caring for their grandchildren.

“While grandparents have long stepped in to care for children, the current opioid crisis is straining the child welfare system and increasingly calling on relatives to raise children whose parents cannot,” said Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United. “They do this with little or no warning or support. Grandparents and other relatives who raise children save our country more than $4.5 billion a year and help the children thrive.”

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Last week, I had the pleasure to serve as the emcee for a rally to support grandparents and relatives who provide a home for children who need care.

“For every child in foster care, nearly 20 children are being raised by relatives outside the child welfare system and are receiving little to no support,” Butts said.

Mother’s Day is a tough time for me. Every year it reminds me that my own mother wasn’t there.

I went to live with my grandmother when I was 4. It has taken me most of my adult life to reconcile being abandoned. But amid that pain was the safety of my grandmother Big Mama.

During the “GrandRally,” a choir from the Pittsburgh-based A Second Chance Inc., which includes grandparents raising grandchildren, sang “Grandma Hands,” a soulful song made iconic by Bill Withers. The first part of the song goes:

“Grandma’s hands

Clapped in church on Sunday morning.

Grandma’s hands

Played a tambourine so well.

Grandma’s hands

Used to issue out a warning.

She’d say, “Billy don’t you run so fast.

Might fall on a piece of glass.

Might be snakes there in that grass.”

My grandmother’s hands saved me.

Big Mama wouldn’t let my siblings and me — there were five of us — be placed in foster care, a system that could have entailed multiple moves or a group home. We surely would have been split up. My grandmother didn’t ask for much from the state; and what she did ask for she needed.

Across the country, there are households headed by grandparents or other relatives taking care of 7.8 million children whose parents may be absent for any number of reasons.

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Every Mother’s Day, I think of Big Mama and I’m grateful for the priceless care she gave me. She managed with so little, like so many others who choose to do what she did.

We can’t stay so distracted with the high-profile political fights and controversies that we don’t push Congress to focus on the legislation that would assist caregivers like my grandmother.

The advocacy groups that sponsored the GrandRally — including Casey Family Programs, the Children’s Defense Fund, AARP, FosterClub, GrandFamilies of America, the National Kinship Alliance for Children and Generations United — and others like them need our support. They need your advocacy.

“While Washington is a mess, putting families first is an issue that can unite across the aisle,” Butts said. “The challenge is elevating and making grandfamilies a priority.”

Last week, I met so many grandmothers who reminded me of Big Mama, who passed away in 1995. They hugged me for her.

There are a lot of caregivers who can’t get what they need to care for the children under their protection.

Long past Mother’s Day, let’s keep the focus on them. They need and deserve our helping hand.

Michelle Singletary can be reached at michelle.singletary@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter @SingletaryM.
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