By Jeanie Keogh
Giving out contraband candies to your grandchildren when their parents aren’t looking, or secretly letting them stay up late are a few of the guilty pleasures of grandparenting. But as much as grandparents might love their grandchildren, they probably wouldn’t choose to raise them. And yet as of 2001, 56,700 grandparents were raising grandchildren in Canada according to a Statistics Canada report.
The thought of cleaning up after finger painting or picking up toys wasn’t what 44-year-old Betty Cornelius had in mind for her future when she became a parent for the second time to her son’s young daughter.
Fifteen years ago, Betty was an empty-nester, working downtown Toronto and saving for her retirement. She had raised her children as well as many foster children and was ready close the chapter of motherhood.Raising her granddaughter Asheleigh wasn’t a choice. Her son had addiction problems and was going to become a father. Betty fought to gain custody from the day Asheleigh was born with drugs and alcohol her system until the day she became a rape victim just after her third birthday. It was then that child protection services apprehended her granddaughter.
“For the first three years of her life I did nothing but worry, but everyone said I was paranoid or interfering,” Betty said.
She went to court to stop the Children’s Aid Society from sending Asheleigh to live in foster care. It was a tough battle proving that as a grandparent, she was the best substitute for real parents. The predominant attitude toward her was, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. If you’ve messed up your son, why should we allow you to raise your grandchild?”
Feeling isolated and ashamed, Betty knew she wasn’t the only one experiencing stigma that she was a bad mother. She put an ad in the newspaper asking people who were having similar difficulties to call her.
“Twenty-eight people called me in three days, crying, thinking I had the answer. All I was looking for was someone to go to coffee with,” she said.
She began CanGrands, a nation-wide support system for grandparents. Fifteen years later, there are more than 25 chapters across the country. Several other grandparent groups have followed. Grandparents Raising Grandchildren is a chapter of the Parent Support Services Society of B.C. Together with the University of Victoria School of Social Work, they have drafted a 200-page legal guide for grandparents to understand adoption and legal guardianship, how to prepare for court and financial benefits available to them.
The court case cost Betty nearly $30,000 – a big price to pay for a child she didn’t plan on rearing.
“It’s just incredible what a court battle can cost these days. A lot of grandparents can spend $100,000 and that’s your whole retirement or your home. If you can’t afford to raise your grandchild you may have to lower your standards,” she said.
Luckily, she was financially secure enough to undertake the difficult task of bringing up a girl with many behavioural and developmental difficulties. Asheleigh was diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome, had reactive attachment disorder and attention deficit. As well, when Asheleigh started puberty, Betty was beginning menopause.
“It was a roller-coaster. My husband would come home and say he was going to the garage. Two hormonal women at two different ends of the spectrum is not a nice sight,” she said.
Should anything happen to her and her husband Ron, Betty has indicated another suitable guardian for Asheleigh in her will. She suggests grandparents also stipulate terms for the biological parents. Currently, grandparents who haven’t adopted their grandchildren don’t have legal power to choose who their grandchild lives with if they are no longer able to care for them.
But as long as Betty and Ron are alive, they ensure she is well cared for. Asheleigh recently graduated from high school and Betty is beginning “to see daylight again.”
Documentary on Grandparents Raising Their Grandchildren
This documentary includes interviews with several grandparents raising their grandchildren including Betty Cornelius. They struggle with the associated costs and are trying to get more consistent resources from the government. Grandparents who take care of their children save the government millions of dollars by keeping their grandchildren out of the foster system.