Grandparents focus on providing sanctuary for grandchildren

Anna Clare. Photo: Geoff Sloan
Anna Clare. Photo: Geoff Sloan
Anna Clare’s plan to reclaim independence after a lifetime of raising her own children was turned on its head the moment she realised she had to do it all over again.

Her two grandchildren were living in an unstable home environment, involving drugs, alcohol and violence, which left Clare with no choice but to provide a permanent sanctuary for them.

More than a decade later, she is channeling her own unique experiences into her role as support group co-ordinator in Christchurch for the Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Trust NZ.

Clare was in her 50s when she took over guardianship of her teenage granddaughter.

“I think the hardest part is when you get a grandchild, it’s at a time of your life when you’re becoming free. You’ve got a bit more disposable income, you’ve got friends who don’t have children, so you go out and do things with them, like dinners or movies,” she said.

“But suddenly we’re back in the situation where you’ve got babysitters, you can’t do things spontaneously. You spend a lot of your time trying to organise therapy, supporting a return to school, going to court meetings or researching what help is available.

“Leaving them [at home] is difficult, for a start, especially when you’re trying to build trust.”

About 95 per cent of grandparents accessing support from the trust took grandchildren into their care as a result of trauma, often encountering issues they never dealt with before.

Although they had different stories to tell, common factors included mental illness and substance abuse.

“In our case, it was a developing situation over the years primarily with drugs, alcohol and violence in the home,” Clare said.

The transition of raising her granddaughter full-time was made easier by the fact Clare had regular contact with her prior to moving in.

Like many families, she was against the alternative of foster care at the hands of Oranga Tamariki.

But it was when she took in her grandson, years after her granddaughter, where things were “a lot harder the second time around,” especially when he started becoming violent.

“It changes grandparents’ lives significantly. You’ve got children who are traumatised when they come into your care. It takes a lot of time, energy and money,” she said.

“I was in a different headspace when I took on my grandson, I was 10 years older, I’d had less contact with him and he’d had some real problems. He’s come a long way since then.”

The GRG trust provides support services to grandparents across the country who raise their grandchildren on a full-time basis.

Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Trust NZ east side co-ordinator Sandra Murphy, Anna Clare and...
Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Trust NZ east side co-ordinator Sandra Murphy, Anna Clare and north side co-ordinator Donna Drummond. Photo: Supplied
This is carried out in the form of counselling sessions, support groups, education, training, financial and legal support and referrals to relevant agencies and organisations.

Membership is diverse both ethnically and socio-economically, ranging in age from early 40s to 90s. Sometimes, this includes great-grandparents raising great-grandchildren.

Many grandparents initially struggled financially when taking on a grandchild as the transition process took some time.

Many did not know they were entitled to financial support such as the Unsupported Child Benefit.

Advocating for families and being able to help change their lives was rewarding, Clare said, knowing what it felt like herself.

Over the years, the trust has seen demand increase.

“I think there’s a lot of pressure on young families. I think there’s a lot more pressure on families than there used to be, there’s a lot more access to drugs, more poverty,” said Clare.

“And with that comes a lack of hope.”

Across the country, the trust supports more than 5900 grandparents and families, with about 230 families in Christchurch alone. They either come voluntarily or are referred by another organisation.

The initial stage of talking to grandparents was always difficult for Clare, particularly when they shared feelings of “parental guilt.”

“Not only do you have the struggle of having to look after your own grandchild who’s traumatised, but the fact that it’s your son or daughter letting the family down.”

The biggest value in a local support group is that it is a safe place to vent with people who understood.

“It could be difficulties dealing with WINZ, Oranga Tamariki, the court system, or the child itself.

“Contact with the parents can also actually be a huge fear for the grandparents because they don’t know what the child’s going back into when they visit.”

Clare has been involved with the trust ever since her granddaughter came to live with her permanently.

A few support group meetings over the years eventually led to a decision to establish a Christchurch group after seeing how much the trust had an impact on her own life.

Before she found her calling in Christchurch, she lived in Auckland on and off along with a five-year stint in the United States.

Family is constantly at the forefront of her mind, whether it is at the trust or in her own time with her two children and grandchildren.

Aside from her work at the trust, she was a part-time support worker for a young person with autism.

“It’s all about family really, there’s not much time for anything else.”

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