"Are my mummy and daddy dead?" Sally Kabak never really knows how to answer that loaded question from her granddaughter.
"They're sick, darling. But we'll look after you." That's all she can say, Kabak explains, welling up with tears.
Kabak is one of more than 5000 grandparents in New Zealand raising grandchildren because of a family breakdown. And, according to Grandparents Raising Grandchildren, the number of grandparents stepping in to play the parent again is growing, with 60 new members joining the charitable trust each month.
Kabak, and her terminally-ill second husband, Norman, are used to emotional grenades like that as they raise two of their grandchildren, Lucy, 8, and Bella, 15.
Kabak, 64, was enjoying a comfortable retirement with American-born Norman, 76, in the small town of Hudson, New York, when life threw them a curve ball.
In 2007, 10 years into their new life, Kabak got a call from Child, Youth and Family. Lucy, 2½ at the time, was deemed at risk and the couple were given co-guardianship of her for six months until Sally's 39-year-old daughter could sort herself out.
She had led a troubled life and had refused offers of help over the years, Kabak says.
"We took Lucy back to our hotel in Wellington and started making plans. We had nowhere to live. We had to start afresh. We had to find a house, pack up our life in the States, find day care for Lucy. It was all such a whirlwind.
"One of the first things we did once we were settled was to get Lucy to the dentist. She needed so many fillings, we were told it should be done under general anesthetic. I remember holding her in my arms at the hospital; she was terrified, not understanding what was going on. She was crying inconsolably. I was crying. It was terrible."
As it turned out, Kabak daughter never did what was required of her to get Lucy back and, six years on, Lucy is still living under the Kabaks' care.
In January this year, 15-year-old granddaughter Bella also came to live with them after some troubles at home with her father.
It's a blessing being a parent again but it's exhausting, Kabak says. "Raising children these days is so different to when my two kids were young. Tiredness is the worst. We don't have the energy we did 30 years ago."
One of the early difficulties raising Lucy was Lucy's fear that Kabak was going to abandon her.
"When she first came into our care I was on the board of the day care centre that she attended. When I had to go to a meeting, she would sit at the bottom of the stairs not letting me pass. I would constantly have to reassure her that I would return."
Bella had to make the biggest adjustment of all, Kabak says. "She has had to adjust to a different routine. The boundaries that we have set in place for her are very different from those she had before she came to live with us."
Kabak started her own website to help others in her situation. "My website [raisinggrandchildren.net.nz], blog and Facebook page started out as a way of connecting people like me. To help each other through the ups and downs of raising our grandchildren.
"We're so supportive of one another. We have never met. We don't know each other but we are like sisters. There's this bond that cements us that can't be broken."
Kabak had done so much research looking for answers to her myriad questions on raising grandchildren that she decided to collate the information, mesh it with her own experience and advice and self-publish a practical guide to raising grandchildren: Grandchildren, Our Hopes and Dreams – a practical and modern guide to raising grandchildren.
She says raising her grandchildren is a "wonderful gift".
"We should be retired and enjoying life, free and easy. We thought that we would be free to travel the world. We are doing this because we have to but we would not change a thing now that we have the girls. They make us laugh. They keep us young.
"Even though I feel like walking away at times, I wouldn't swap it for the world. The love that I have for both of these lovely girls is overwhelming. Life would be empty without them."
An increasing number of grandparents need help in their role as primary caregivers. Many of them are turning to Grandparents Raising Grandchildren.
The organisation started 13 years ago and has 34 support groups nationwide. They have 5382 caregivers on their books, which represents about 3000 families raising 6000 children.
The Wellington branch started out six years ago with 20 grandparent families. That has risen to 189.
Just under half the GRG members are solo grandmothers, says Di Vivian, GRG founder, chairwoman and members support manager.
The not-for-profit organisation offers advice and help through their support groups and coffee mornings, educates grandparents about their entitlements and court processes, and lobbies Parliament to facilitate better financial support and change the legal and regulatory environment for children and caregivers.
Vivian support manager, says she has been lobbying the government for 14 years to give grandparents and kin carers the add-on financial benefits foster carers get, such as the annual $1684.76 clothing allowance.
The weekly payments from Income Support – between $143 and $200 per child per week – are to cover everything a child needs to exist. Forking out for clothes on top of this, as well as other small add-ons they miss out on, can be crippling, she says.
"For grandparents living on a pension with three kids to look after, can you imagine just affording the power bill let alone trying to fit them out in clothing?"
Paying for legal aid is also a hurdle, she says. Grandparents don't always get legal aid and if they do, they have to repay it. That's not easy if you're 65 and living on your super.
Many grandparents on a pension need financial support looking after the emotional needs of some of their charges.
"A lot of these kids have special needs because they have suffered trauma and abuse, which makes it all the more challenging for a caregiver.
"I believe any child that has been removed from a parent should automatically be entitled to free counselling, and that's not the case right now."
Cecilee Donovan, co-ordinator of the Wellington branch of GRG, raised her grandson, Harley Thorpe, from the age of 8. He is now 25 and living a successful independent life.
As a single "parent", Donovan, now 73, had to stay in her job as a counsellor to keep the money coming in.
"It wasn't easy, financially or emotionally," she says.
"When I was in hospital once, Harley asked 'What will happen to me if you die? Who will want me?' I promised him I would not die till he was at least at university.
"Their emotional state can be so fragile when we get them. We get the kids after all the damage has been done and we have to try to pick up the pieces."
People often think grandparents get called in to raise a grandchild because their teen has had a baby, Donovan says.
But the average age of a parent found unable to care for a child, according to GRG statistics, is 26. It is usually because of drugs, alcohol or mental illness.
While most grandparents want to take on the care of a grandchild in need, it's a life-changing decision. "You abdicate your old life.
"Most of these grandparents are at retirement age who have to rely a great deal on their superannuation to look after their grandchild, not to mention the thousands they have to spend getting custody of these kids through the courts. And parents can keep you in the courts for years and years."
She recalls one woman who was called to rescue three of her grandchildren as police raided the parents' home for drugs and weapons.
"She had these three little kids and had to quit her job immediately and it took authorities three months to get her the financial help she needed. During that time she had to support them on her super."
Grandparents are also at a fragile time of life in terms of their health, she says. And their energy levels are not what they used to be.
"I know an 82 year-old grandmother raising her 6-year-old granddaughter. That can't be easy. And there's always the worry about what will happen to a grandchild if a grandparent becomes ill."
Donovan has had to "pocket her pride" on many occasions to be able to pay for extracurricular activities and school trips for her grandson.
These sorts of activities can normalise a child's life, she says. Help came from numerous community groups, such as Rotary and the RSA.
Her own grandson was aware of the financial constraints.
She recalls admonishing him for wearing his sports socks in the mud only to discover later that he was taping up his football boot because he knew she wouldn't be able to afford new ones.
Thorpe, who now lives in Christchurch and works in communications, says it was "admirable" that his grandmother stepped in to raise him.
"It was a big change, but I was happy to go and live with her. She was attentive and caring and maybe not quite the disciplinarian. She taught me all the things a parent would, things I keep with me today, like being positive, working hard to get to where you want to be in life."
There were financial challenges. "It was difficult for my grandmother. She was broke. I was very lucky we had other family members who could help us out. But I think it's hard for grandparents raising their grandchildren when, for many of them, their capacity to work has passed."
Roma Paull always put her children first. So, when she got a call from the New South Wales Family and Community Services telling her that her eldest daughter's three children had been put into care, she stepped up.
"I was like a stunned mullet. I knew at once I had to step up and raise these kids. They needed to be with me. When I had my four kids, my parents were always around to help me out. Now it was my turn."
The children, now 8, 6 and 2½, have been placed under the care of Paull and her husband, John, 65, who live in Elsdon, Porirua.
She took early retirement in June 2011 from her job as a site trainer at the Ministry of Social Development – where she worked for 21 years – and cashed in her superannuation to help with raising the children.
When the children arrived in January last year, they were emotionally fragile.
"The kids would say 'No-one is going to take us away from you, are they Nanny?'
"They worry about what will happen to us if we die. We have an extended family and we tell them that if I can't look after them, their aunty or uncle will. That's the way it is with our family."
The eldest child was very protective over the other two, Paull says.
"She'd follow me around the house making sure I was doing everything right for the little ones. I eventually had to tell her, 'Darling, you have to be yourself, let yourself be a little girl. I'm looking after you now'."
Paull currently receives an allowance from the Australian government for the three children. Her superannuation savings and her husband's salary as a printer help. But parenting three children at this stage in their lives has completely changed their lifestyle.
"John and I used to travel a lot but we can't do that anymore. I used to play netball with the golden oldies in their world tournaments but I had to stop that once the kids came to us.
"But I don't see these changes in our lives as sacrifices. These kids are like my own and you just have to do your best for them.
"I'm glad to be looking after them. They keep me fit and young. We go to all of their concerts and games. I had them all christened and they have blossomed since they've been here."
Paull has had to be one step ahead of the children in a world that has changed hugely since she was a young mum. She has taken technology lessons and courses in modern parenting "because it's all different to the way it was when mine were little".
She still struggles with her daughter's choices and the fact all contact from her and the children's father seems to have stopped.
"I wonder how the hell a parent can do this to their kids. Their priority was not their children and that's what I find hard to get over.
"The kids still kiss pictures of their mum and dad every morning before they go to school and every night before they go to sleep. They are still very present in that sense. So I always say to the kids that the door is always open to Mum and Dad."
■ Some names have been changed.
Social Development Minister Paula Bennett says she is working with Grandparents Raising Grandchildren to discuss support for their members.
She has confirmed an extra $10 million will go to grandparents raising grandchildren and other carers in similar circumstances, as part of the White Paper for Vulnerable Children.
"Thousands of New Zealand's grandparents and families have stepped in to pick up the pieces; providing love, care and a home for children who have often been removed from their own home following abuse and neglect.
"The Grandparents Raising Grandchildren trust has already provided excellent information to inform the process, through a member survey. Suggestions included funding for clothing, transport and school fees."
She says GRG will be part of the group providing formal advice for ministers to consider, to ensure the funding pool is designed to best meet the needs of grandparents.
There are currently about 8000 caregivers receiving orphan and unsupported child benefits through Work and Income because of family breakdown. That represents 12,000 children being raised by grandparents, great grandparents, aunts, uncles and other family members other than the parents.
Payments to carers per child per week are:
$143.32 for a child aged 0-4
$166.32 for a child aged 5-9
$183.53 for a child aged 10-13
$200.65 for a child 14+
The most common age group of Grandparents Raising Grandchildren members is 50-59, followed by 60-69. The charitable trust also has great-grandparents approaching them for help.
GRG have 5382 caregivers on their books, which represents about 3000 families raising 6000 children.
- The Dominion Post
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