INDEPENDENCE, Ky. — Jeanne Miller-Jacobs stood outside her suburban home, waiting for the school bus to pick up her 6-year-old granddaughter while her two younger grandsons zipped around the driveway.
It's been about three years since she and her husband, John Jacobs, took custody of the kids and joined the growing number of Northern Kentucky grandparents raising their grandchildren.
"Everybody's overwhelmed — regardless of what age they get or how many," said Miller-Jacobs, who is 56. "But the struggles are a little different."
The Kinship Families Coalition of Kentucky estimates that 6 percent of Kentucky children — 59,000 kids in all — are being raised by relatives who aren't their parents. For 56,000 of them, those relatives are their grandparents.
The latest U.S. Census figures put the number at 3,900 children in the Northern Kentucky counties of Boone, Campbell, Gallatin, Grant and Kenton. That's up from 3,541 in 2009, according to the Census Bureau's American Community Survey.
Miller-Jacobs said she suspects the number is even higher. Her granddaughter, Kaylee, is on a soccer team with seven players. Grandparents are raising two of them, she said.
To help the growing number of grandparents raising their grandchildren, several local organizations are partnering to produce the first-ever Northern Kentucky Grandparents as Parents Conference. The Sept. 11 event will be from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at Trinity Episcopal Church in Covington and is open to anyone, no matter where they live.
Miller-Jacobs has been helping to plan the conference, which will provide information on child development, legal matters and the community resources and assistance available to grandparents and other relatives raising children who aren't theirs.
She knows first-hand the difficulties grandparents face. There are the physical challenges of raising babies and toddlers. There are emotional challenges for grandparents of teenagers who are struggling with adolescence and the loss of their moms and dads.
And then there's the personal grief for grandparents whose adult children have become addicted to drugs or incarcerated or both.
Miller-Jacobs and her husband took custody of their three grandchildren when her son became addicted to painkillers after a bad motorcycle accident. Her daughter-in-law was addicted to heroin.
"You grieve," she said. "For me, it was a big loss, the loss of my son."
For her husband, it was a loss of freedom. He was accustomed to being able to go fishing whenever he wanted, she said. All of a sudden, the couple couldn't go anywhere because they had their hands full raising three little kids.
Heroin Epidemic Plays a Role
Locally, there's no question in Mike Hammons' mind the heroin epidemic has impacted the number of grandparents raising their grandchildren.
Hammons is director of advocacy for Children Inc., one of the organizations coordinating the conference on Sept. 11.
He doesn't have specific numbers, but he said the anecdotal evidence is strong.
"Everyone is experiencing the same thing," he said. "They're all saying the same thing."
There are other reasons behind the growing numbers, too, said Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates. Brooks and other experts call the phenomenon "kinship care," when relatives other than parents are raising children who aren't theirs.
It can occur as the result of child abuse or domestic violence, a medical crisis at home, the loss of a job, the incarceration of parents or even military deployments, he said.
"Generally, kinship care doesn't happen when things are going just splendidly in the life of a family," he said. "Kids fall into kinship care when there is some crisis with mom, dad or both."
Drug addiction certainly has played a part, he said, but the fact that so many parts of Kentucky are still struggling economically has been a factor, too.
Kentucky has one of the highest rates of grandparents raising grandchildren across the country, according to the Kids Count Data Center of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Ohio and Indiana each have 4 percent of their children being raised by grandparents, according to Kids Count. Because those states are bigger, that amounts to 104,000 kids in Ohio and 66,000 in Indiana, according to Kids Count.
The numbers are growing nationwide, said Carole Cox, a professor of social work at Fordham University and the author of two books about grandparents raising their grandchildren.
"All of the Census data keeps showing that it's increasing," she said. "And I really believe that the Census data doesn't even begin to document the extent of it."
That's because many kinship care arrangements are informal, Cox said, with grandparents stepping in because they don't want their grandchildren to become part of the foster care system.
Kinship care is not specific to any particular culture, socio-economic level or race, said Joe Crumbley, a national expert on kinship care who will be the keynote speaker for the Sept. 11 conference.
"Kinship care has been around for a long time, and it can happen to anybody," he said. "It can happen naturally because of catastrophic issues, and it can happen because of birth parents making bad decisions."
But one of the biggest reasons for the increase in such care, he said, is a push at the federal, state and local level to keep children from lingering in foster care.
Miller-Jacobs said she knows one local grandmother who let her grandchildren go into foster care because she didn't think she could handle raising them. But once the kids were in the system, the grandmother lost the ability to see them because she had no legal rights to them.
"I also met a woman who was in her 70s. She has a 2-year-old. She said, 'I would like for him to be adopted because I don't know how long I'm going to live,'" Miller-Jacobs said. "You learn really easy not to judge."
'We Try To Share As Much As We Can'
Four-year-old Leium hopped into Miller-Jacobs' lap to look at pictures on her smart phone while 3-year-old Jordan looked for a Batman motorcycle in the next room.
Leium looks just like his dad did at that age, Miller-Jacobs said with a smile before she kissed the top of his head.
Leium scrolled through and showed a visitor a picture of his dad helping to coach his soccer team and a video that his sister, Kaylee, made for their mom.
"Good morning, Mommy! I love you," Kaylee said in the video. "I'm getting ready for first grade!"
Miller-Jacobs made the recording to send her daughter-in-law so she would feel a part of Kaylee's big first-grade milestone.
"We try to share as much as we can," she said. "I always try to think about if I was the person and someone else had my kids — it would be heartbreaking."
Miller-Jacobs' son and daughter-in-law are doing much better these days. Both are sober, she said, and both have good jobs, their own cars and live in a house.
The goal is to reunite the kids with their parents, but Miller-Jacobs figures that will take at least a year.
In the meantime, the kids see their parents one night a week and spend the rest of the time with Mamaw and Papaw — Miller-Jacobs and her husband.
Miller-Jacobs still works full-time during the week while her husband watches the boys. John Jacobs, 58, works part-time at night at Home Depot.
They don't really talk about retirement anymore. Contributions to a retirement plan have gone "out the window" because of the money it takes to care for the kids, she said.
Still, there isn't a thing Miller-Jacobs would do differently, she said.
"I didn't hesitate one bit," she said. "No."
The Northern Kentucky Grandparents as Parents Conference will be held from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Sept. 11 at Trinity Episcopal Church in Covington. The cost is $5 for grandparents or relatives and $50 for professionals. The cost includes lunch. For more information, click here or go to http://www.childreninc.org/2015-grandparents-as-parents-conference.
The event is offered through a partnership of Children, Inc., Trinity Episcopal Church, Kenton County Cooperative Extension Service, Family Nurturing Center, Brighton Center, Kentucky Youth Advocates and the Northern Kentucky Area Development District.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.