Relatives Take Heroic Action to Keep Families Together

27 Nov Relatives Take Heroic Action to Keep Families Together

By Fermin Vasquez

Maria Ortega holds her sleeping granddaughter, Soleil. Ortega is one of thousands of relative caregivers in South L.A. who serve as primary caregivers for a relative's child.

Maria Ortega holds her sleeping granddaughter, Soleil. Ortega is one of thousands of relative caregivers in South L.A. who serve as primary caregivers for a relative’s child.

Pushing a stroller down the street, Maria Ortega seems like a nice grandmother taking a walk with her grandchild. But she’s actually on her way back from Families Helping Families, a program sponsored by Community Coalition that provides support services for relatives taking care of children no longer living with their parents.

After rearing five kids of her own, Ortega never expected that at 57, she would be raising 22-month-old Soleil.

“My brother met an American woman in Mexicali but the mother gave into drugs and alcohol and no longer was able to care for her own child,” she explained. “My brother told me that he could not take care of the baby and that I should take her.”

In order to give Soleil a brighter future, Ortega left Mexicali and came to the U.S., where she now lives in South L.A. She misses her family in Mexico and wishes she could be with her husband in Mexicali where they were living a humble but happy retired life.

Taking care of a toddler is demanding at any age, but for someone nearing 60, the stress and the physical requirements can impact health significantly. Ortega recently spent the day waiting at a local clinic to make a doctor’s appointment for heart pains. But the struggles do not deter her.

“I’m going to give her all my love and care until the day I no longer can,” Ortega said.

The War on Drugs

Family arrangements like Soleil’s have become increasingly common since the 1980s. At least 2.5 million children live with relatives without their parents present, according to a 2011 report by national advocacy organization Generations United.

Many of these arrangements are informal ones among family members, but placing children with relatives has also become a common practice within the child welfare system. Today the face of foster care is less likely to be the image that most people have of a child living with a stranger. In L.A. County, more than 50% of children who need care are placed with a relative.

The 1980s crack cocaine epidemic coupled with the criminalization of substance abuse had a devastating effect on individual lives and families, said Dr. Cheryl Grills, a psychology professor at Loyola Marymount University. Although most previous drug epidemics were confined to men, crack cocaine became the first drug to be widely used by both men and women, she noted.

Although crack use crossed class and race lines, the war on drugs shifted the view of addiction from a medical problem to a criminal one and it landed squarely on the shoulders of poor communities of color. As a result, more adults were taken to jail and more children were taken into state custody. By the late 1990s, child welfare cases in L.A. County had swelled to more than 52,000 children.

“The greatest casualty of the war on drugs were children,” said Marqueece Harris-Dawson, president and CEO of Community Coalition. “Children living with relatives was not new but it became the new norm. These relatives became the safety net that held many families together through tough times and saved thousands of children from being taken away by the state.”

Family Is Family

The case of 24-year-old Lanesha Williams illustrates the issue. At 5 years old, Williams and her siblings were taken from their mother, Gretchen, after she became addicted to drugs. All of them were placed in separate group homes.

Wanda Enix, Williams’ great aunt, recounted what happened next: “I got a call from my husband saying that the government was going to take Gretchen’s kids and asked me what we should do. I told him to go with his heart, and when I came back we had four children at our house.”

Williams, who has a tattoo of her aunt’s and uncle’s initials on her foot, said she was “blessed.” “They taught me to work hard, to have faith in God, and to care for others. They were my guide.”

Enix, who had already raised three children of her own, recalled that “I had a job with Pacific Bell and was responsible for 47 employees. But we were determined that the kids should stay with family because I never wanted to see them homeless, sleeping in nobody’s doorway, or out there pushing a cart.”

Although it wasn’t easy, all the kids graduated from high school and all have jobs, Enix said proudly.

Over the years, Enix has become an advocate to help other families know their rights and get connected to needed services, which can be difficult in a system geared toward foster care agencies and group homes.

For Williams, staying with her family lifted the burden of guilt and shame of being removed from her mother. “I had a relatively normal experience even though my parents were not there for me. Family is just family,” she said.

Vasquez is a communications specialist at Community Coalition.

No Comments

Post A Comment