• Bob Vlach, Woodford Sun Staff

Nearly 200 Woodford students being raised by relatives

A growing number of students in Woodford County Public Schools are being raised by their grandparents, aunts and uncles, or other relatives. These children likely experienced something traumatic in their lives to find themselves being raised by someone other than mom or dad, or both parents, according to the coordinators of the school district’s family resource centers. Olivia Britton and Abby VanMeter said the opioid and drug epidemic has led to many students having an unstable home life. In some cases, kids have gone back home to live with their mom or dad and then something happens that takes them out of their home again, they said. The family resource center coordinators said instability at home creates uncertainty that can lead to students falling behind academically in the classroom. “Those children are bringing so much extra to school and so much trauma that they’ve experienced, and so we want to focus on those kids,” VanMeter said. There are 187 students in Woodford County Public Schools who are being raised by guardians, which equates to about 110 to 115 families, she said. “It’s an issue everywhere,” said Garet Wells, director of staff/student services in Woodford County schools. “I’m sure there are other (school) districts that might have more students in that situation. I’m sure there are districts that have less. But it is an issue everywhere. And it’s an issue that is growing everywhere.” With approximately 4,000 students in Woodford County schools, having fewer than 200 children (4.5 percent) being raised by relatives may seem like a small number. However, the struggles faced by these students are real because of the traumatic circumstances and experiences most have faced in their lives, VanMeter said. Children may be living with their grandma because mom has died and dad is struggling with drug addiction or is out of the picture altogether. A parent may be incarcerated. One of the more traumatic situations children can experience is watching an ambulance come to their home after a parent has overdosed on drugs, Britton said. When her younger sister’s two children, Tavon and Kiona, needed a home in 2014 because their mom was battling an addiction to drugs, Brittany Washington said, “We … had no other choice. We had to take them.” “… All they needed was love.” So when a third child, Terra, needed them, Brittany and her husband, Dion Washington, brought her home from Illinois when she was 6 days old. They are now raising five children, including two biological sons, Chase and Christian, in their Versailles home. “Sometimes we don’t know how we do it, how we manage,” said Brittany. “But they’re just our kids,” explained Dion. “Her entire life,” that’s how long Tammy Henderson said she’s been raising her 10-year-old granddaughter, Marley Brown. Marley’s grandfather had been battling the same aggressive form of brain cancer that killed John McCain for four years when she came to live with her grandparents. “Emotionally for me,” said Henderson, “it was so wonderful to have new life” in our home. Her teenage daughter was addicted to drugs when Marley was born, so the family knew she was better off living with her grandparents. “Once I finally resolved that issue of we’re going to have a baby here,” Henderson said, “I wanted her to be the most loved, most wanted child …” She said Marley helped her “Mimi” get through the death of her husband six months later. Marley’s mom was addicted to drugs for six years, including “heroin in the end,” Henderson said. “And probably some of that was caused by watching her father die when she was in high school.” While their family’s story had a sad beginning, it’s a great story now because Marley has a father, mother and siblings in her life. Her mom has been in recovery for four-plus years, works and wants to provide counseling services to other addicts. Henderson said her daughter “was able to just focus on herself and her situation (after giving up custody of Marley) ... Also, I think we’ve all come to the conclusion sometimes you have to love someone enough to allow them to be in this stable home.” Relatives as Parents (RAP) meetings each month at the Woodford County Extension office gives Henderson and other parents raising relatives a support group to talk, ask questions and get information on many different topics, VanMeter explained. She said guest speakers from many professions, including therapists and attorneys, answer “questions and give them information about what they’re going through.” “And they learn a lot from each other,” said Britton. She pointed out parents raising a relative’s child often face the same or similar issues as others have already experienced. “They’re basically supporting each other,” she continued. “A lot of times, they just want to sit and have someone to talk to who’s had somewhat the same experience as they have.” Until she met another grandmother at a RAP meeting two years ago, Henderson said she never thought she would meet someone in a similar situation as hers. Both were still raising a grandchild after a daughter (the child’s mother) got help with their addiction and were in recovery, she explained. “People automatically think (children) go back with their parents. But it’s not automatically that way. Because they (the biological parents) know how much they can handle,” Henderson explained. “Plus, if a child’s already bonded with someone … it’s really not good to take them away from that” stable home. Because she’s been involved with RAP since its first meeting and she’s been raising Marley for 10 years, Henderson said she’s able to help and give hope to others raising the children of relatives who are battling an addiction to drugs. “They think there’s no hope. And that’s what I thought about my daughter,” Henderson said. “… As long as there’s life, there’s hope. … That’s how I try to help them. Don’t give up.” Henderson said she monitors her granddaughter’s Internet use, but she and other grandparents raising a child may not know about all the potential dangers of social media use in today’s society. “So that’s the kinds of thing that we try to help those relatives understand,” VanMeter said. She said efforts are ongoing to encourage more parents, who are raising a relative’s child or children, to attend the group meetings. About 10 parents typically attend monthly RAP meetings, which are offered in partnership with the Extension service and its agent for family and consumer sciences, Elizabeth Coots. “I would love to get more people to come to (RAP meetings),” said Brittany Washington. “There are so many people in Woodford County that are raising relatives. And it’s nice to know that you’re not the only one going through it because I really thought that I was the only one that was doing this. “When you go to the meeting, you find people that are just like you. So that’s been really helpful.” This is the fifth year the family resource centers have been offering monthly Relatives as Parents meetings with activities for children and a meal for everyone, Britton and VanMeter said. “It (children being raised by relatives) was an issue when I started (working in Woodford County schools) 10 years ago, and it has grown every year,” Wells said. “And I think our family resource centers at the time saw that that need was growing, which led to the implementation of the Relatives as Parents group …” Because more and more people are raising a relative’s child or children, VanMeter said most counties around Woodford County have support groups like Relatives as Parents. Relatives raising grandchildren, nieces and nephews often do not receive government assistance for what’s called “kinship care,” but services are offered through the family resource centers to help them meet the basic needs of the children in their care, VanMeter explained. Britton was a student at Northside and Simmons elementary schools, so she knew about the services offered through their Family Resource Center before she became coordinator. “It’s touching, what we get to do. It’s very rewarding,” the 2011 Woodford County High School graduate said. With support from community partners, the family resource centers provide food assistance, scholarships for school field trips and Christmas gifts to families taking on the additional responsibilities of raising a relative’s kid (or kids) and giving them a new start. “They’re with someone who is a safe and stable guardian,” said VanMeter. “… They’re with someone who provides for them. They care for them.” “… Someone has stepped up … and is caring for these kids.” Said Washington of her sister’s children, “Of course they miss her and they’re always going to love their mom … We just want them to know that we love them and that we take care of them.”

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