Lost in the system, grandparents raising grandchildren

August 3, 2012

Jan and Ed Wagner with their grandson Holden

CUSTER TWP. – Jan and Ed Wagner raised three children, two daughters and a son. They worked hard their entire lives and looked forward to spending their retirement in their house near the Pere Marquette River. That retirement would be spent exploring the country and spending time with their three children and six grandchildren.

They did not anticipate, in their late ’50s at the time, raising an infant.

When he was just a baby, their grandson Holden came into their lives, full time. They welcomed him with love and he became their world, their retirement.

Jan says there are an estimated 58,000 to 140,000 children in Michigan being raised by kin, mostly grandparents. She said it’s difficult to know because most of these families do not receive assistance from the state, a situation that is more of a loophole rather than a choice.

“I’m not saying that we deserve more than the average family deserves,” Jan says. “But, we were preparing for retirement and are on a limited income. We don’t have health insurance and can’t afford it. At 61-years-old nobody is going to hire me in a full time job with benefits while I raise my grandson at the same time.”

When they took custody of Holden, Jan became involved with Mason County Grandparents Raising Grandchlidren, a support group that meets twice a month.

June McMann, who founded the group 12 years ago, died last winter. Jan then took over as the leader of the group. In the four years they have had Holden, who is now 6, Jan has learned a lot about this group of people. She has become trained and certified in many areas of advocacy. She has also learned that the state is not very helpful in helping this group of people.

“I don’t know how we could have gotten through this without the support of other grandparents who have gone ahead of us,” Jan says. “We really feel for those families out there.

“This is about issues we are facing trying to raise our grandchildren in an age of retirement. We not only need support of the community but recognition of who we are. We need recognition of the state and federal government as well.”

Jan said what often happens when a grandparent or another relative takes custody of a related child is they receive guardianship. What she has learned is that this route prevents the caretakers from receiving state aid, unlike foster parenting.

“Most grand families can’t be licensed because they intervene before something tragic happens. If you don’t have a Child Protective Services action you pretty much can’t foster the child.”

Jan said two-thirds of families raising relatives do not receive support from the state.

“We do it on our own. I started advocating because we do the same work if not more because they are already our children and we are not going to back out. We are not going to say we aren’t going to handle this kid. That’s the blessing of a relative placement. It’s usually permanent.

“I want to get awareness out there. Our group has always been strong in that process. We are trying to get laws passed that include grand families in the support system. The laws typically fail in one chamber of legislature.”

Out of respect and privacy of Holden’s mother, we are not going to discuss her in this article. They love her and hope that she can someday be part of her child’s life.

But, they do have a child to raise and the Wagners are seeking the best route for that child, adoption. They are also trying to become foster parents, which will give them some financial assistance.

“There have been a lot of road blocks,” Ed says. “Nobody has ever done this. Most grandparents are afraid of the system. They are afraid they will lose their grandchild. There is constant intimidation from the state.”

Locally, however, the Wagners have had great cooperation from Mason County Probate Court.

“Judge Mark Raven has been wonderful to work with,” Jan says. “He has done everything by the book. It’s been a long process, but it’s the right process. We are so thankful for him and his staff.”

Working with the courts, though, means legal representation, which has been an expensive endeavor.

Jan and Ed have no regrets about raising their grandson.

“We have so much more time and patience for him then we did for our three children,” Jan says. “We pick our battles. If we can give him the foundation I think he will be just fine. He is a very smart young man.

“We wouldn’t have done it any different way. It was our choice and the alternative would have been so horrendous. We had to learn our limitations and live within them. I think we really do pretty good.

“The freedom and spontaneity that we were looking forward to in retirement is just not important compared to raising this child. What’s important is that he gets a good life.”

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Mason County Grandparents Raising Grandchildren meets the second and fourth Tuesday of the month from 1:30 to 3 p.m. at Mason County Reformed Church at the corner of U.S. 10-31 and Amber Road.

The group tries to hold activities for the group members and their grandchildren. The group is not limited to grandparents but any family member raising a related child who is not their own.

“We want to encourage anybody in this situation to join us,” Jan says. “They are facing the same issues and we want them to know that they are not alone.”

The group is in need of financial help to help with its activities. Jan says it’s becoming more difficult to receive donations from individuals and businesses.

For more information about the group, contact Jan at wagnerjan@live.com or 231-757-9810.

Story and photos by Rob Alway, Editor