ANNE from Dunoon was 46 when she began caring for her two grandchildren. Now at 58, she is still caring for her 12-year-old grandchild. Anne's daughter was a heroin addict, shooting up hundreds of dollars worth of drugs every day until she was hospitalised.
"I was told my daughter would die," Anne said. "But she didn't and the minute she got out of hospital, I became carer for her child."
Anne later began to care for her daughter's nine-month-old child as well, after her daughter was wanted by the police.
"The baby's growth was stunted and she was dying of neglect and had major withdrawals," Anne said. "She still suffers severe trauma. At the time, I had a full-time job at university and a relationship, but my partner didn't want to go through it with me and left. I also lost friends because they didn't want to be associated with someone who had an addict daughter."
In Australia, there are more than 22,000 grandparent-headed families in Australia, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, and many of those families live in the Northern Rivers region.
During the last 25 years there has been a dramatic increase in the number of grandparents who are raising their grandchildren because of their adult children's inability to take on the parenting role. A wide range of social factors has contributed to this growing social phenomenon, including parental alcohol and drug abuse, incarceration, mental health problems, as well as child abuse and neglect. Many of these grandcarers are isolated and are having financial difficulty and often don't know where to turn for help.
"At first, I was afraid to go to Centrelink in case they took my grandchild away from me," Anne said. "I started working part-time to care for the baby, but it wasn't until I got legal advice and discovered I could access government services that I was able to manage."
Parenting grandchildren can be a rewarding experience, bringing joy into grandparents' lives and keeping them active. However the grandparent-as-parent role presents many challenges including physical and emotional health problems, financial difficulties, legal and housing problems, as well as social isolation.
"I was very lonely and found I couldn't do things with friends anymore because I had kids," Anne said. "I couldn't go overseas or out on the weekends and evenings and I needed people to talk to about what I was going through."
Anne discovered a group of other grandcarers who would meet regularly to talk, share information and provide each other with emotional and social support. In the local area, the Rainbow Region Grandcarers group has been established to support grandcarers and other kin-carers. It meets on the first Friday of each month in school terms. Anne wants to encourage more people to come along and support each other.
"My grandkids are lovely, happy kids," Anne said. "We have joyful moments and they call me mum and tell me how much they love me. Sometimes I miss the grandparenting role where you are supposed to spoil them and give them back. You hear other grandparents say, 'I looked after them for one day and I'm exhausted.' I get tired a lot but I couldn't put them in foster care. I used to miss my freedom, but now it's just a way of life and I want to be able to provide a good start for my grandchildren."
Sue, a grandcarer from Nimbin, said many grandcarers feel ashamed about their role, but emphasised that coming to a support group can not only give you lots of information about your legal rights, but about where you can access services to help the children you are caring for.
"When their parents have mental, drug or alcohol problems, the children don't come without trouble," Sue said. "At a support group, you can find out where they can get psychological help or help with learning disabilities. It also allows children to get to know each other, so they know they are not the only ones brought up by their grandparents. Everyone there also understands what you are going through and it's good to be able to talk about it."
The Rainbow Region Grandcarers is a support group for grandparents and relative/kinship carers who are raising their grandchildren. The group meets on the first Friday of the month during school terms from 10.30am-12pm upstairs at the Family Relationship Centre, 5 Market Street, Lismore. Come along, have morning tea, make new friends, have a laugh and enjoy the company of others who are in the same position. For more information, phone 6623 2700.