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Grandparents hold global summit to gain rights to abused grandchildren

UNPHOTOconference.jpg

The first secretary of the Permanent Mission of Uganda to the U.N. (left), speaks at a press conference about the international summit of grandparents at U.N. headquarters in New York. With him are (left to right) Brigitte Castellano, National Committee of Grandparents for Children's Rights; Patti Page; Maggie Lee, of Grandparents Support Group (Bronx ,NY) and Beth Finkel of the AARP. (UN Photo/Ryan Brown)

It took Betty Cornelius a 2 1/2-year court battle and $25,000 to win custody of her granddaughter, who had been repeatedly abused by her drug-addicted parents.

As she started to take care of the girl, who had serious psychiatric and health problems, Cornelius felt she needed support herself. She posted an advertisement in a local newspaper in Oshawa, Ontario, and in two days 28 grandparents had called her. They then started meeting on a regular basis.

“We were all crying, talking about our struggles,” she said. “And they all thought I had the answers.”

Ten years later, Cornelius is leading the Canadian movement for new kinship laws.

On May 6, she will take her battle to a world stage by traveling to New York to attend “Grandparents Caring for Children: A Global Challenge,” the first international summit on grandparents’ rights.

With the number of grandparents taking care of grandchildren rising dramatically over the last 10 years, activists from around the world will gather in New York to make their voices heard. Their goal is to increase awareness of the issue, compare laws in different countries and share personal stories. They will also discuss custody rights and lack of financial support for grandparents.

“The need has become so intense that we have to address it now,” said Brigitte Castellano, the director of the National Committee of Grandparents for Children’s Rights, which is based in New York.

Castellano expects 150 activists to join the summit from countries like New Zealand, Germany, Canada and Australia.

After three days of discussions at a Brooklyn Marriott hotel, participants will adopt a declaration of the rights and obligations of grandparents caring for children. They plan to send the documents to U.N. ambassadors in New York.

“We really want the United Nations to get involved,” said Castellano, who held a press conference at the world body’s headquarters in early April with other representatives.

Castellano said she hoped to inform as many U.N. ambassadors as possible so that grandparents’ rights could eventually be formalized in an international convention.

Ten years ago, very few grandparents were organized in activist groups. The public still pictured them in their traditional roles: grandmothers knitting sweaters and grandfathers taking grandkids on fishing trips.

But things have changed quickly. In the United States, the number of grandparents raising kids has climbed by 30 percent since 1990, and there are some 4.5 million children living in grandparent-headed households in the country, according to the 2000 Census.

When Castellano started her committee in 1999 after her daughter was killed, she said politicians had no idea what she was talking about. Now that a higher number of grandparents have started playing major roles in their grandchildren’s lives, they are more organized and want local and national agencies to recognize the importance of their responsibilities, both legally and financially.

But grandparents raising children is not an American phenomenon. In Canada, for instance, 70,000 grandparents take care of their grandchildren. The main reasons are drug use and alcohol addiction among parents. In Australia, there were 22,500 grandparent-headed families in 2003.

In Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States, most grandparents are asking for more financial help, which they say is disproportionately low compared with what foster parents receive.

Cornelius, the 54-year-old grandmother from Canada, has been caring for her granddaughter for 10 years now and receives $200 a month as kinship care. For the foster child she recently adopted, Cornelius gets $1,330 a month.

“I feel that the government is discriminating against my granddaughter,” she said.

Maggie Lee, a grandmother from New York who founded the Grandparents Empowerment Movement, took care of four grandchildren after their parents were murdered.

She had to quit her job to raise the children, but assuming the position of guardian did not make her eligible for adequate government benefits.

In New York, the “child only grant” amounts to $300 a month for the first child and $150 for others, which is far less than what a foster parent would get.

“We need similar services as the foster parents receive,” Castellano said.

Activists at the summit will also discuss the many obstacles affecting grandparents, especially when they have no formal legal custody of their grandchildren.

When they are informal caregivers, grandparents have difficulties enrolling children in school, authorizing medical treatment, maintaining public housing leases and accessing a variety of federal benefits and services.

But obtaining legal custody is often a long and expensive process. While Cornelius was fighting in court to get custody of her granddaughter, she says the child was raped, drugged and missed several important hospital appointments. Cornelius spent $25,000 in legal fees but said her battle was relatively cheap and short compared with what other members of her organization have been through.

In some other countries, grandparents don’t have to face such legal battles. In Africa, for instance, grandparents have long played an active role in families.

Grandparents step in naturally as caretakers and no legal battles are involved, according to Duncan Laki Muhumuza, the first secretary of Uganda’s mission to the United Nations.

Along with other representatives from Africa, Muhumuza will attend the summit on May 6.

“People could learn from our experience,” he said.

E-mail: ccl2119@columbia.edu