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The ANA Messenger: Social Development Edition 2013

Published: September 26, 2013
Social and Economic Development Strategies (SEDS)

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Talking Stick: Grandparents Raising Grandchildren

by Robert Parisian

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“Elders and youth are the most important family members in Native communities,” says Robert Parisian. Robert and his wife raised their grandchild for about five years. Robert is an enrolled member of the Chippewa-Cree Tribe of Montana, currently living in North Dakota. Robert is the Training Specialist for the Administration for Native Americans Eastern Region Training and Technical Assistance Center. I recently spoke with Robert for some ideas on how to help grandparents raise their grandchildren.

Grandparents raising grandchildren is increasing across the United States and especially in Native communities. In 2000, about 6 percent of Native American and Alaska Native children were cared for by their grandparents compared to about 1.3 percent for White children. Grandparents raising grandchildren provides a stable environment for the grandchild and transfers cultural understanding and awareness. Grandparents also benefit by passing on their knowledge and culture and helping the child heal from past wounds. “By teaching the youth the cultural and community ways, grandparents can help end the cycle that causes the situation.” says Robert.

Many times grandparents end up raising grandchildren because of negative social conditions. The parent may be unable to financially support the child, or alcohol and drugs create an unsafe environment. Grandparents are often on fixed incomes, it is difficult to get child support from the parent to help raise the children, and there can be a lot of hoops for grandparents to navigate. When grandparents take on the responsibility of the child, Robert recommends grandparents keep two things in mind:

  • Figure out how to get custody or guardianship of the child. Custody is needed to enroll the child in school and take him or her to the doctor. Custody can be granted by the tribal or county court depending on the situation.
  • Sign up the youth for free and reduced lunch and Medicaid if possible. The income of the parents can count for these and not the income of the grandparents.

While there are many grandparents raising grandchildren, there are not a lot of local support networks. Often, grandparents are figuring out how to be parents again on their own. Robert recommends finding a way to create these support networks to help elders navigate the tribal or county social systems. Tribes and Native community governments need to understand the importance of raising grandchildren. “You need to strengthen the family before you can strengthen the reservation” says Robert. ANA believes Native communities can thrive only with a holistic approach to development. Economic development is important, but family is more important in maintaining culture and tradition. Robert elaborates: “a support system is necessary to ensure the survival of Native peoples continues.”

The Reference Guide for Native American Family Preservation Programs, published by the Administration for Native Americans, has a chapter on grandparents raising grandchildren and many resources on providing positive parenting skills. This reference guide may be helpful for those working with elders and grandparents.

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Last Reviewed: October 18, 2016