In eyes of the law, love is not enough

Dee Mullen soothes her 3-year old granddaughter, Abby, after her evening bath in their Lady Lake home. Mullen is one of an estimated 157,000 grandparents in Florida who is the primary caregiver for a child whose parents could no longer raise them.

Dee Mullen sets her alarm for 5 a.m.knowing it’s unlikely she’ll make it that long.

Come 1:30 a.m, or maybe as late as 3:30 a.m., her  3-year-old granddaughter, Abby, will be waking up for a cup of milk and a cuddle.

If she’s lucky, Mullen, of Lady Lake, then can steal another hour or so of sleep before it’s time to get ready for work and start Abby’s 6 a.m. morning routine.

There’ll be dressing the squirmy toddler, packing the pink Trolls backpack and practicing potty training. Then scurrying to the school bus in time to get on the road so Mullen can make it her job as a medical assistant by 7 a.m.

Ten hours later, she’ll head home, where her boyfriend will have met Abby’s 4 p.m. bus. It will be about 6:30 p.m., just enough time for dinner and the battle over a bath before 8:30 bedtime.

“Then we get up and do it all over again,” Mullen said.

It’s a drill all parents know, and Mullen — who has raised eight children — more than most. But at 57, she expected to be spending National Grandparents Day today dreaming of retirement, not Wonder Pets reruns.

Such is the sacrifice of people like Mullen, a rising number of Floridians who are raising grandchildren in a state that grants them few, if any, long-term rights.

The Sunshine State ranks among America’s most restrictive for grandparent visitation rights, even though it likely has more grandparents than anywhere in the country with the highest over-65 population in the nation.

Here, it doesn’t matter if one of Florida’s estimated 4.5 million grandparents is a child’s sole caregiver. A parent can legally decide to end all contact at any time, unless one of them is dead, missing  or in a permanent vegetative state and the other has been convicted of a felony or violent offense.

Even then, there’s no guarantee.

Charles “Hap” Meekins, of Flagler Beach, raised his baby granddaughter until she was 7 after the girl’s father was sent to death row for killing her mother.

Yet Meekins hasn’t seen his granddaughter in four years since exhausting the financial resources to fight a Florida Department of Children and Families decision to relocate her to live with the killer’s mother.

In Mullen’s case, she has temporary legal custody, which gives her short-term rights, but Abby’s parents could challenge that at any time and regain custody if they prove to be fit parents.

Mullen is one of more than 2.6 million of the nation’s 70 million grandparents who are now responsible for the care of their grandchildren, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

More than 157,000 such grandparents live in Florida, and grandparents and other relatives are raising about 11 percent of all the children in the state, according to the grandparent advocacy group Grandfamilies.org.

A new kind of family

Households in which children are living with nonparent relatives are called “grandfamilies” by Generations United, a national advocacy group.

Though it’s not a new issue, the underlying reasons are shifting, said Donna Butts, the group’s executive director.

“Right now we are in the middle of an opioid epidemic, which has increased the number (of relatives raising children) in certain areas,” she noted.

Children entering out-of-home placement due to their parent’s drug or alcohol use rose 12 percent between 2009 and 2016, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

The number of children placed in the care of a grandparent or another relative rose from 24 percent to 32 percent between 2006 and 2016.

In response, Generations United pushed for the Supporting Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Act, which took effect in July to send resources grandparents’ way.

“These kids feel abandoned and don’t understand why their parents aren’t there, and these caregivers put their lives on hold for these kids,” Butts said. “Staying with their family helps the kids feel loved and like they have roots.”

The group says that relatives raising children instead of the foster care system saves taxpayers about $4 billion each year.

Local Support for Caregivers

Some grandchildren come with extra challenges. In Mullen’s case, the bus ride to a Leesburg school is necessary for Abby to get extra help with her speech development.

“She is a lot better than she used to be,” Mullen said. “She has a stubborn part to her, but’s she very smart and definitely gets her point across.”

Even after a full day at school, Abby still has extra energy to burn. It leaves little time for Mullen to spend with herself, with friends or with her boyfriend.

Weekends mean trips to the pool, the beach or the park. “There’s not much that we really do without her,” she said.

A co-worker pointed Mullen to Kids Central Inc. in Wildwood, which offers assistance for people raising relative children.

The lead child welfare agency for Lake, Marion, Sumter, Citrus and Hernando counties offers legal, financial, educational and emotional support.

“I was honestly surprised that there were so many family members taking care of kids,” Mullen said. “The majority of the people in these (groups) were grandparents, too.”

The support groups are among the most important resources, said Tawnya Drent, who oversees the program.

“The caregivers can lose their identity — they used to be able to go out and do things and now they have to get a 4-year-old in bed by 8 p.m.,” she said. “They learn they’re not alone. The caregivers meet new friends, and the kids can make friends.”

Drent said about 250 to 300 caregivers come through the local program each year.

Statewide, of the 24,067 children placed in out-of-home care by child-welfare workers, 44 percent went to approved relatives as of July, according to DCF.

Of course, raising grandchildren isn’t the only way grandparents are making a major impact on society.

“Being actively involved in grandchildren’s lives could lead to grandparents feeling younger, having a greater sense of companionship from their grandchildren and experiencing a greater sense of satisfaction,” said Ming Cui, professor with the Department of Family and Child Sciences at Florida State University.

“Studies also suggest that grandparent involvement also promotes well-being among grandchildren, such as reduced depressive symptoms and aggressive behavior,” she added.

A $253 billion impact Grandparents are also fueling a major economic engine.

Eighty-one percent said they had given financial support for their grandchildren in the last year, according to a 2017 TD Ameritrade survey.

And 57 percent of millennial parents age 19 to 37 reported getting other types of assistance from their parents to help them save money, according to the survey.

The 69 percent of millennial parents who received direct financial support for their children got an average of $1,632 in one year, with college savings being the top category, the report said.

The survey also estimated that the annual financial support and unpaid labor provided by grandparents added up to $253 billion a year — and more than half of millennial parents said their parents offered to help without being asked.

“If you want get a long conversation going, ask a grandparent about their grandkids,” said Dave Bruns, spokesman for AARP Florida.

“Grandchildren are a hugely important part of grandparents’ lives, and they play a very important role in the children’s lives.”

Mackenzie Raetz is an associate managing editor with The Villages Daily Sun. She can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5354, ormackenzie.raetz@thevillagesmedis.com