Now entering her 60s, Cindy Woodman thought this would be an easy time in her life, a time for taking trips with friends and family and quiet nights in front of the television.
But last year, when her daughter became addicted to drugs and could no longer provide for her family, Woodman put serene visions of her elderly years aside to take over custody of her granddaughter, 7-year-old Delilah Ortiz.
It's an unexpected responsibility placed on a growing number of grandparents in Connecticut and around the nation, and many of them — such as Woodman — would like to be better compensated from the state.
Earlier this year, Woodman, of East Hartford, and other grandparents thought help was on the way from a bill in the state legislature that called for paying grandparents the same monthly stipend for raising their grandchildren that the state now pays to foster parents.
Woodman was an ardent advocate for the bill, which could have increased her assistance from about $330 a month to about $740 a month.
But because of the ailing economy and the many political demands placed on the state budget, legislators say the language of the bill has been changed so that most grandparents won't see an increase in their monthly assistance. Instead, the bill now calls only for closing a legal loophole and thereby granting Superior Court judges the authority to give grandparents access to an already existing fund. Under current law, only probate judges can grant such access.
The bill, as written now, won't increase the amount paid out to grandparents every month.
Legislators say the bill's language has been changed to give it the best chance to make it to a full vote at the end of the legislative session. One of the bill's sponsors, Rep. Kathy Tallarita, D-Enfield, said she is hopeful that ongoing negotiations with members of the legislature's appropriations committee will eventually enable the bill's sponsors to restore the original language.
"There's still hope," Tallarita said. "I'm trying to tell people not to see this as too disappointing because the bill is still alive. It might not necessarily happen this year, but it is a priority."
But Woodman said she might not have that long until she is forced to make some drastic financial decisions, including taking on a second job or selling her East Hartford home.
"It really is coming down to a matter of survival," said Woodman, who estimated that the addition of her granddaughter to her home has cost as much as an extra $1,000 a month. And as tight as the money has gotten, she said, she would not consider placing her granddaughter in a foster home.
"Basically, people like us are being punished for trying to do right by our family," she said.
There are more than 21,000 children in the state being cared for by their grandparents, more than six times the 3,300 children in foster care, according to the latest census numbers. A growing number of federal grants and other one-time forms of assistance are becoming available to help grandparents, but Woodman and advocates for grandparents say the services they provide should be as valued as those provided by foster parents.
"We have an obvious advantage over most foster parents," she said. "These kids are our blood."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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