For Matthew, a 26-year-old Bridgeport resident raised by his Puerto Rican grandparents, like for many Latino children, this arrangement was a necessity. But it is one that thousands of Latinos in Connecticut find themselves in.
Mathew , whose full name is being withheld to respect his privacy, was born into circumstances where his biological parents could not provide a stable and economically secure environment, but his grandparents could and were willing to take on the parenting role.
In Matthew’s case, this would not be a short-term relationship. Even after his mother was ready to assume a fuller parental role, he did not want to move out of his grandparents’ home, and that is where he still lives and is welcome to do so.
When the American Association of Retired Persons conducted a state and national study of multi-generational families in 2005, more than 3,500 Latino grandparents in Connecticut said they were responsible for their grandchildren. The socio-economic issues behind this situation persist to a large extent and were exacerbated during the lingering 2008 recession. There also has been an influx of lower-income immigrants from Latin and Central America and, in recent months, the arrival of thousands of hurricane-displaced Puerto Ricans needing jobs and housing.
Current numbers of Latino grandparents who formally or informally for caring for grandchildren and responsible for their legal, physical and financial needs is not known.
But a reliance on extended family, especially among Latinos, reflects cultural expectations and norms. This is particularly true among families dominated by members who are in their first or second generation in the state, so the arrangement is expected in many ways.
“In our culture you do it and don’t question it,” said Alma Maya, a Puerto Rico-born civil rights activist and former town clerk, who has helped raise her grandchildren. “My contemporaries do a lot with their grandchildren,” added Maya, noting that while the grandmothers rule within the home, the grandfathers are involved and frequently committed make sure the children get to school and are picked up in the afternoon.
At the Casa Boricua de Meriden, more than two dozen elderly Hispanics, mostly Puerto Ricans, gather daily for social interaction and a subsidized lunch. “Quite a few of these seniors have raised grandkids,” said Aida Carrero, who oversees this program. “One woman raised all of her grandchildren,” Carrero said.
Latino migrant and immigrant families, especially those with language challenges or tenuous immigration status, often shy away from utilizing social and educational services outside their community. Many also are uncomfortable with using “strangers” in general for child care or even babysitting, Carrero said.
Moreover, when Hispanics need help, they are likely to turn to family and friends first, before resorting to outside agencies. In part, this tendency can be traced to difficulties with English and the fact that Hispanics do have larger families than non-Hispanics to draw up for support. In the United States the average Hispanic family consists of 3.87 individuals, as opposed to the national average of 3.19
Members of Matthew’s generation, who have spent all or nearly all of their lives in the United States, may be more comfortable with daycare, but a heavy involvement of grandparents in raising their grandchildren is likely to persist and even increase. Many of the socio-economic causes remain prevalent and have been exacerbated as immigrants from Central and South America continue to arrive in Connecticut and thousands of hurricane-displaced Puerto Ricans seek shelter on the mainland.
“We are finding more and more Latino raising their grandkids,” said Lisa Werkmeister Rozas, director of the Puerto Rican/Latina Studies Project at the University of Connecticut School of Social Work in Hartford. Often the causes are economic, such as the need for both parents to work full-time, or the absence of biological parents due to incarceration or addiction, she said.
Werkmeister Rozas has found that there remains a greater likelihood for Latino households to live below the poverty level, creating the necessity for both parents, or the single-parent, to hold at least one job or to relocate to find employment. In some cases a parent may be in prison or there are social problems such as teen pregnancy and divorce, she said.
However, grandparent-grandchild arrangement is not necessarily “a negative thing,” said Werkmeister Rozas, who holds a doctorate in social work and is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). She said this extended family setup and involvement of grandparents can foster a “rich environment” that provides stability, consistency at home and school, as well as social and cultural support.
“Children in care of relatives thrive,” wrote Dianne Dobbins, senior director of research for Child Care Aware of America, a national nonprofit organization that focuses exclusively on child care. She also cited stability as a benefit, particularly in regard to the child having to make fewer school changes.
The AARP study also found grandparents taking the responsibility for the raising of grandchildren is hardly exclusive to the Latino population and is often driven by similar economic and social issues, particularly in African-American households, where these problems also are much more common than for the rest of the population.
In Willimantic, Yolanda Negron, a longtime community leader and the first Puerto Rican on the Windham/Willimantic town council, said, “There is a large number of grandparents taking care of grandchildren, not just in Latino families, but across the board.” She added, “I saw it a lot while at the state Department of Children and Families, and see it a lot here in town.”
During AARP’s Connecticut research, 18,898 grandparents said they were responsible for their grandchildren living with them, with 2,157 in Hartford and 1,757 in Bridgeport, both heavily multi-racial communities, while expected and readily accepted can be financially difficult. Carrera noted that many of the people who attend her program in Meriden are dependent on Social Security allocations, which may not be large.
In several Connecticut cities, there are non-profit and governmental agencies that recognize that grandparents of all races bringing up their grandchildren may need help. One of the manifestations of this concern is visible in Hartford’s North End where adjacent to St. Michael (San Miguel) Roman Catholic Church on Clark and Barbour streets, there are 24 multi-bedroom townhouses exclusively for low-income grandparents with legal custody of their grandchildren. Many of the families in this diverse population are Hispanic.
The Community Renewal Team, a nonprofit social service agency based in Hartford, created Grandparents Raising Grandchildren to address the housing needs for the less affluent residents in its 75-town service area and in response to the prevailing social and economic dynamics among lower-income families, particularly first and second generation Latino immigrants and migrants from Puerto Rico.
The staff at Grandparents Raising Grandchildren speaks Spanish and English,” said Fernando Betancourt, who is chairman of CRT and executive director of the San Juan Center on Main Street in Hartford.
Bilingualism while a challenge also is benefit that Latino children derive from living with grandparents, who themselves spent part of their lives in their homelands. There also are cultural benefits since grandparents tend to prepare foods and celebrate holidays, such as Three Kings Day, based on their own upbringing.
And as Alma Maya, a grandmother herself notes, in a multi-generational Latino household, especially in the kitchen, “Abuela is queen.”