By Grand Design
By Fran Memberg
Two Jewish Atlanta couples tackle the challenges and reap the benefits of rearing their grandchildren.
These days, when more and more women are delaying childbearing until their late 30s or 40s, it’s not unusual for a kindergartner’s teacher or classmates to mistake Mom and Dad for Grandma and Grandpa.
For three Jewish Atlanta children, there’s no mistake. They are, in fact, being reared by their grandparents.
In Georgia, more than 100,000 children under the age of 18 live in households where a grandparent is responsible for their care, according to the 2005-07 American Community Survey. Substance abuse or neglect by a parent, or the death of a parent, are among reasons that grandparents become caretakers of their grandchildren.
Statistics are not available based on the religion practiced in such households, but the Jewish community is not immune to family crises facing the general population.
Alex Weinberg, 13, has lived with his grandparents Danyse and Larry Weinberg of Dunwoody since he was two months old and calls them Mama and Papa.
“Our son ran off in high school and got married, and he was much too young to raise a child,” said Danyse.
Alex is now in frequent contact with his father, whom he calls Dad and who is remarried with two other children, but his mother has been out of the picture since soon after Alex’s out-of-state birth. At the time Danyse and Larry were wading through the legal system to get custody of Alex, they were also preparing for the bar mitzvah of the youngest of their three sons. Their daughter was 10 at the time. They have since legally adopted Alex.
According to information on the Web site of Atlanta domestic relations law firm Kessler, Schwarz and Solomiany, “A grandparent has a more difficult legal standard to meet than does a parent when seeking custody of a child.”
The firm’s founder, Randall M. Kessler, said, “The presumption is, a judge will try to do everything to give custody to the parent.” He cited a custody case ruling that stated severing a parent/child relationship is “as if you are tearing the skin from the bone.”
The Weinbergs met that higher standard and have, for all intents and purposes, been Alex’s parents all his life, although the true circumstances were never kept from him.
“He knows I’m his grandmother and I’m there for him,” said Danyse. Even as a preschooler when classmates somehow found out about Alex’s situation, he was able to handle their questions. “When a child said (to Alex), ‘everybody else has a mother, how come you don’t?’, he said he had lots of people who love him and he has more than most people,” Danyse said.
Having Alex come to live with them was “a life-changing event in our lives,” said Larry, a commercial real estate owner and financier. “Here we were starting all over again.” He was quick to add, “We thought it was the best thing for Alex.”
From the beginning, the Weinbergs have acted as a team to rear Alex.
As an infant, he needed surgery and had to be fed every two hours. One morning Danyse awoke and panicked when she didn’t hear the baby. “Larry had taken Alex for a walk and fed him so I could sleep,” she said.
Alex’s medical problems prevented Danyse from finishing a master’s degree program in special education. “I just couldn’t do it all.” And she didn’t have to. “We had lots of family and friends helping. Everybody seems to have pitched in to adopt him. It’s amazing the way people help without being asked,” Danyse said.
Other challenges include “having enough energy to keep up with him” and a different set of parental challenges since the Weinbergs were bringing up their older children, said Danyse, who mentioned cellphones and computers as two examples.
But the rewards outweigh the challenges.
“We’ve gotten a whole lot more pleasure out of it than the inconveniences,” said Larry, who thinks that Alex benefits from having seasoned parents.
“He’s able to do a lot more than the other kids,” said Larry, referring to the greater financial independence the Weinbergs have now compared to the earlier years of their marriage. “Alex goes wherever we go,” including ski trips. “With the other kids (when parents are younger), you worry about if they’ll fall down and hurt themselves. Now, if we go skiing, he goes, and if you fall, you pick yourself up.”
In addition to Alex, the Weinbergs have other grandchildren and another due in April.
“Each knows how much I love them and how much Larry loves them,” said Danyse. “Our kids, too. We’re there for them.”
The Division of Aging Services of the Georgia Department of Human Resources (DHR) provides funding for kinship care, the term used to describe the cases when children are being reared by relatives other than their own parents, and Georgia State University is home to the National Center on Grandparents Raising Grandchildren.
Aging Services program consultant Leslie Sessley says that her division has contracts with various groups throughout the state to provide kinship care services, including Atlanta’s Jewish Family and Career Services, which offers a Kinship Care Navigator Training program that offers training so that grandparent or other relative caregivers who have already gone through DHR or other community support services can help others navigate the system. According to JF&CS career services program director Sharon Almon, no Jewish people have participated in the program.
Like the Weinbergs, Sylvia and Barry Hyman of Sandy Springs have charted their own course as they’ve reared two of their three grandchildren over the past six years.
The youngest of their three children, who is the father of the Hymans’ granddaughters, Ashley, 11, and Emily, 8, was married to the girls’ mother, but even then the Hymans had joint custody of the girls with their son and former daughter-in-law. When the girls’ mother left the household unexpectedly and moved to another state, the Hymans were awarded legal custody. Ashley and Emily see their father and call him Daddy, and their mother visits occasionally. The girls call the Hymans Mimi and Papa.
Sylvia and Barry, a financial consultant, minimize the challenges of being grandparents rearing grandchildren and focus on the rewards.
“Possibly Barry would’ve retired by now and we would’ve traveled more,” said Sylvia.
On the other hand, she said, “We have that extra bond – we’re parents and grandparents combined. It’s keeping us young. We have extra love that we’re giving out and we’re surrounded by their constant love of us.”
Looking back to the time when they gained sole custody of Ashley and Emily, Barry said, “You do what you have to do.” He credits Sylvia for shouldering most of the childrearing responsibilities, which include chauffeuring the girls to after-school activities and helping with homework. To help out, the Hymans employ an au pair and Ashley and Emily each have a PAL through the JF&CS Big Brother/Big Sister program.
“Sylvia is the main reason for (the girls’) continued growth and success,” Barry said.
About 11 years ago, at a time when they might have considered downsizing, the Hymans built a new home with extra bedrooms and a playroom.
“It was beshert (fated),” said Barry. “Once Ashley and Emily moved in with us, we needed every bit of room. They are the household.”
Deborah Langosch is director of the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services of New York Kinship Care program, which serves families regardless of race, religion or ethnic background. That program differs from Atlanta’s Navigator training program in that it is staffed by a trained social worker who conducts weekly support groups, provides for the emotional and psychological needs of the families, and acts as an advocate for them.
Project Shalom, a program of the JBFCS of New York, at one time served families in the Orthodox Jewish community in which children were being reared by relatives other than their parents. The program is no longer funded but, said Langosch, it demonstrates that “keeping children with family is an important Jewish value.”
Langosch will be a presenter at a March 10 and 11 symposium conducted by the National Center on Grandparents Raising Grandchildren at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Atlanta.
It’s the second such gathering of the center that grew out of Project Healthy Grandparents, a GSU College of Health and Human Sciences program started in 1998 to provide services to grandparents raising grandchildren primarily in DeKalb and Fulton counties. In 2001, the Hasbro Foundation provided funding for the national center, which focuses on big picture issues that include public policy and changes in Medicare funding, according to Deborah M. Whitley, the center’s director.
She said that research conducted by the center’s founding director, Susan Kelly, identified that many of the grandparent caregivers needed support because “the parenting environment had changed since they raised their children.”
The symposium will address areas where support is needed, including finances, legal matters, emotional well-being and medical issues, among others.