Politics & Government

Stepping Up

As the incarceration of mothers increases in the United States, who cares for the children left behind?
©2018 Google Maps Screenshot
The James W. Johnson Homes in Philadelphia.

A clean dusting of snow coats the hoods of cars parked along Philadelphia’s West Norris Street. The trees are mostly bare, withered leaves buried in the corners of benches. This winter morning, the massive rust-brick complex, a low-rise housing development known as the James W. Johnson Homes, is serene. The complex, which stretches for blocks, comprises 522 apartments spread across fifty-nine buildings. The front doors form a confetti of colors—vivid yellow or faded blue, forest green or desert brown.

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Shirley Johnson, seventy-eight, emerges from behind a crimson door, closing it and the steel security gate behind her.* Her white puffer coat is zipped up against the cold. The platform lift is broken again, so she inches down the stoop, gripping the iron handrail with both hands, until she is standing in front of her apartment, leaning on her walker. She appears even smaller than her true five feet. In a few minutes, the free shuttle arrives, and she’s off to the senior center.

Key Findings

  • An estimated 2.7 million children in the United States have a parent behind bars.

  • 42% of mothers in state prisons, some 50,000 in 2004, identify their child’s grandmother as the current caregiver.

  • Grandparents face two primary paths in caring for these grandchildren: legal guardianship or foster parenting.

  • Legal guardianship allows the incarcerated parent to retain parental rights, but offers zero financial or social supports.

  • Foster parent status provides grandparents with a substantial stipend and access to day care, after school programs, and more.

  • But to gain foster care status, a grandparent must first abandon the child to the child welfare system, and risk losing custody entirely.

  • Grandparents who become foster parents are ultimately asked to adopt, making the parent a legal stranger to the child.

When she arrives, she settles in at a table with two of her sisters and several friends. Johnson sips her coffee and carefully pulls apart a cheese Danish; she’ll spend the day exercising, having lunch, and talking smack about who’s going to get a “head rub” or lose one of many intense games of pinochle. For a decade or so, this tribe and these meals have been her respite. She returns the favor by volunteering to call bingo on Wednesday nights.

On most evenings, Johnson makes it home by five to find her teenage granddaughter, Kayla Davis, watching TV or texting. Johnson will settle down on the couch, ask Kayla about school, though the girl will usually brush those questions aside to ask about the senior center, if Johnson made a new painting or sculpture, or if she happened to bring home a sampling of that night’s dinner. Sometimes it’s baked fish, sometimes chicken cheesesteak or shrimp fried rice. “I don’t do all that cooking no more,” Johnson says. “If she wants to eat, she cooks.” Kayla can hold her own now in the kitchen, having served as her grandmother’s sous-chef for years. She was only ten when she learned how to fry chicken without getting splattered by the oil, as Johnson, fighting arthritis, directed her from a chair. She now has her own rhythm in the kitchen.

On this winter night, Kayla sits in the kitchen dicing blocks of cheddar for macaroni and cheese. With each ingredient—milk, butter, eggs, seasoning—Kayla calls out to her grandmother for the exact measurements. Finally, she whips the mixture until it braids together. “I have to do it like you do it, Mommy, or else it ain’t gonna taste right,” Kayla says.

Johnson is Kayla’s paternal grandmother, but she’s been a live-in parent to Kayla since she was an infant. Johnson’s son, Trevor, was serving a three-year prison sentence when Kayla was born; her mother, Ebony, was, according to Johnson, battling drug addiction and cycling in and out of jail. After a few years of raising Kayla informally, a judge granted Johnson permanent custody, at which point Kayla joined her sister, Shantelle, who, as a grade-schooler, had already been living with Johnson for several years. Over the years, Johnson has cared for four of her son’s children for various stretches of time. Shantelle and Kayla are the last of the grandchildren living with her.

  • “My children, my mother’s children, my sister’s children, my children’s children. All my life I’ve been watching children.”

Johnson is one of thousands of grandmothers across the country raising a second generation of children while their parents sit behind bars, an unintended consequence of decades of mass incarceration. As of 2010—the most recent data available—an estimated 2.7 million children in the United States had an incarcerated parent. Studies show that when fathers are incarcerated, their children generally live with their mother, but when mothers are incarcerated, their children mainly live with grandparents and other relatives, with an emphasis on grandmothers. According to a 2018 report, for every child in foster care with relatives, there are nineteen being raised by grandparents or other extended family, informally, outsidethe foster-care system.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that 42 percent of all mothers in state prisons—some 50,000 of them in 2004—identify their child’s grandmother as the current caregiver. Incarcerated women now comprise a larger proportion of the prison population than ever before, showing a more than 700 percent increase, from 26,000 to 215,000, between 1980 and 2016. In 2016, almost two-thirds of women incarcerated in state prisons were in for nonviolent offenses, many of them drug-related crimes. Sixty-two percent of women in prison, and nearly 80 percent of women in jail, are mothers. As the number of incarcerated mothers climbs, a vast burden has settled on the shoulders of women like Johnson.

These grandmothers form the fragile nucleus of families torn apart by incarceration. Some take on the role of foster parents, a path that comes with significant financial and social support but requires families to first surrender custody of the child to the state. (Later, as the state seeks a permanent home for the child, it will usually ask the grandparent to adopt, which involves the wrenching decision to permanently sever parental rights, making the mother a legal stranger to her own child.) The rest, grandmothers like Johnson, take care of children as legal guardians, which preserves the mother’s parental rights but leaves thousands of grandmothers in a precarious position, raising young children as they themselves are aging, without any financial or institutional support.

“My children, my mother’s children, my sister’s children, my children’s children,” says Johnson. “All my life I’ve been watching children.”

When Johnson tells the story of Ebony’s battle with addiction and incarceration, she speaks frankly. She describes Ebony as being doting and affectionate with her daughter, but prone to disappearing for weeks or even months at a time. Sometimes, Johnson, says, these disappearances would be followed by collect calls from the county jail. On at least one occasion, Johnson says, she found herself having to scrape together bail. Sometimes, Ebony would appear at Johnson’s home to see Kayla and would eventually take her to see other relatives who lived nearby. Sometimes they would return, but on many occasions, Ebony would leave Kayla at someone else’s home, usually in the neighborhood. Johnson says it would have worried her more had they all not already known where Kayla actually lived.

Johnson says that the real impetus to seek custody came one day when she left Kayla with Ebony so she could run an errand. While Johnson was out, Ebony took Kayla to visit her maternal grandmother. Night came, without word. Johnson began calling around, only to discover that Ebony had disappeared again, leaving Kayla in the care of her sister. Not long after that, Johnson went to court to petition for custody. Kayla was two.

Ebony’s struggle with addiction and sex work stretched across the next decade. “She was gone almost a whole year one time,” Johnson recalls. “Came out, did good a month. Right back in the same stuff. She don’t get locked up for stealing, robbery, or nothing. On the corner. She stays on the corner.” Once, Johnson suggested to Ebony that she switch corners, away from officers who recognized her—a form of harm reduction, in Johnson’s mind, since a new spot might mean fewer arrests, and perhaps a little more time with Kayla.

Over the years, Ebony’s addiction slowly closed its grip on family life in all too familiar ways. Johnson was often worried. “I was always thinking that somebody would catch up with her,” she says, “that they would kill her or harm her or something.” Whenever she returned from a stint in jail, Ebony would come to see Kayla, upbeat and visibly healthy, sharing a meal with her daughter, vowing to stay clean, and only later would it become clear that she was using again. She’d be skinnier, jumpy, slurring. Johnson remembers a few visits that ended with Ebony slipping out with a trench coat, or a bedspread sewn by the church mothers, or a box of food.

Once, when Kayla was an infant, Johnson took her to visit her mother in jail. She wanted to keep them connected but found the initial visit too invasive and never returned. After that, letter writing became Ebony’s primary love language. Over the years, Kayla would come to expect mail from the county jails as a sign of her mother’s safety. There, Kayla thought, her mother was clean.

  • “My children, my mother’s children, my sister’s children, my children’s children. All my life I’ve been watching children.”

In the days before Johnson knew her parenting arrangement would be permanent, she enrolled Kayla in preschool without any trouble. But she quickly realized she’d need some legal standing in order to do much more. She filed for custody of Kayla, an arrangement that allowed Ebony and Johnson’s only son, Trevor, to maintain their parental rights and visitation privileges. In becoming Kayla’s legal guardian, Johnson took on full responsibility for Kayla’s care but lost any possibility of support from Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services (DHS). Instead, she and her granddaughters would survive on her Social Security benefits, with modest state assistance for Kayla—roughly $200 a month sent via Pennsylvania’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF). “Welfare, that’s it,” says Johnson. “You just got welfare.”

Later, Kayla began receiving Social Security disability benefits through her father—roughly $535 a month. Shantelle, meanwhile, was waitressing and reporting her tips as income. These contributions to the family income were a great help, but they also led to a 55 percent cut in Johnson’s food stamps, as well as a 64 percent increase in rent, to $420 a month. Today, their combined household income is around $1,600 a month, which still places them under the federal poverty guidelines level of $20,780 for a family of three.

Johnson could have alleviated some of this financial pressure by applying to become what’s known as a “kinship caregiver” through Pennsylvania’s child-welfare system, a status that triggers a stipend to help cover the cost of raising the child. Kinship caregivers, however, run significant risks through their loss of autonomy, since they are essentially contracted by the state to provide the child a temporary home until DHS can find permanent placement for the child. Alternatively, they can petition to become legal guardians through family court without child-welfare involvement, or simply continue parenting without any formal legal status.

As legal guardians, caregivers gain legal standing, with full decision-making power on behalf of the child they care for. They can seek medical care, enroll the child in school, even register for benefits if the child is eligible. They maintain control over day-to-day parenting decisions that would otherwise be forfeited in the child-welfare system. Prior to the recent enactment of Act 75, in 2015, which gave foster parents more parental control, kinship caregivers had to seek DHS approval for everyday activities such as permissions for field trips, sleepovers, or joining a sports team.

Had Johnson pursued the path of becoming a kinship caregiver, she not only would have received a foster-care maintenance stipend, but also access to a whole range of support for Kayla, from subsidized day care to after-school programs to summer camp. As a high school student, Kayla would have had access to the agency’s discretionary funds to cover the costs of class trips, school photos, even a prom dress.

Johnson says she was never informed that being a kinship caregiver was an option. But even if she had known about it, she would have had to take a considerable risk to qualify. In order to become a formal kinship caregiver, a candidate must first surrender custody of the child they care for to the state. While this does not necessarily affect any living arrangement, it does lead to temporarily surrendering all decision-making power over the child to the state, taking a gamble that a judge will allow her to keep the child once the probationary period is complete.

It isn’t just a matter of waiting out the process, but qualifying under tight scrutiny in order to become what is called a “resource parent”—a foster parent or kinship caregiver. For the safety of the child, to be certified as a kinship caregiver in Philadelphia, applicants must pass a medical exam, get child-abuse and criminal-history clearances, and participate in training programs and parent preparation. Then, a DHS social worker conducts a full inspection of the home, known as a “home study,” describing the family’s strengths and noting any problems, including potential safety hazards. DHS then follows up by interviewing references outside the family. If a prospective parent is approved, a social worker is assigned to the family and begins a series of visits at least once a month. (For younger children, the visits are usually weekly.) These visits, in turn, are supplemented by review hearings before a judge every three months.

Many caregivers told me they consider these requirements intimidating, invasive, and constrictive, limiting the way they raise their kin. They describe the visits as feeling more like surveillance. With a few perceived wrong turns, a child can be removed. Advocates say the prospect of losing custody is grandparents’ biggest fear. Counselors with the Family Advocacy Unit at Community Legal Services (CLS), which represents parents involved with DHS, have watched relatives come forward to take in a child only to have DHS reject them as kinship caregivers and send the child to foster care.

“I can think of cases in which the issue was the number of bedrooms, and where the issue was the criminal record of individuals living in the home—even when the offense was not a prohibited offense,” says Maggie Potter, a social worker at CLS. “There have also been more nebulous, discretionary-type cases where the worker had concerns that the relative was going to let the parent visit when they weren’t allowed to, or that the caregiver had some type of mental-health issues.” Potter says kinship is, however, considered a best practice and the least restrictive setting in general. Once children are placed with a family member in kinship, the court will not want the child’s placement to be disrupted.

For decades, structural inequality has exacerbated racial disparities in the child-welfare system. According to the Disparities & Disproportionality in Child Welfare report, children of color are moved between various foster homes more often than white children, are placed in group homes more often, are less likely to find permanent placement, and are less likely to be reunited with family. These facts exasperate already-anxious communities that have substantial anecdotal evidence of children being ripped from homes in their neighborhoods.

Philadelphia’s DHS has taken steps to allay the community’s longstanding fears of losing their kin to the system through an initiative that consolidates case management with providers in the child’s own neighborhood and keeps more children in permanent homes with family members. Deborah Croston of Turning Points, a community agency that partners with DHS, says the system has made an about-face in the last few years by formally supporting the idea that children in foster care need to be with family. “We do things for kinship in order to keep the family together,” she says. This includes a budget and the flexibility to purchase a bed or a fridge or any other necessities to get a home up and running. The numbers suggest that these interventions might be helping families stay together: Between 2013 and 2017, use of kinship care in Philadelphia rose by 12 percent.

“If you would share the rights for that little bit of time, that couple of years, you could lock yourself into support for the duration of raising the child,” Croston tells grandparents and other relatives seeking to become resource parents. “The difference between formal and informal is that you have those people that you know that you can call. Yes, it feels invasive in the beginning, but if you get to a point where you feel like a team, it does provide you lots and lots of support.”

At the federal level, reforms included in a February 2018 spending bill, and originally scheduled to go into effect in October 2018, redirect federal funds to keep children out of foster care and in their homes, thus allowing foster agencies to spend money much earlier in the process on such preventive measures as mental-health care and addiction treatment.

Even at its best, with all these supports in place, the partnership between parents and the child-welfare system is not an equal one. “Essentially, I just see the judges having a lot of power,” says Potter. “The power to make decisions about where the child lives, with whom. And what’s in the child’s best interest is in the hands of the judge and the court, instead of in the caregiver’s hands.” With legal custody, Potter says, “you don’t get that financial assistance,” but at least “you have the decision-making authority.”

Kayla is demure until she’s not. We’re tucked away in a booth at Old Country Buffet, where the air is thick with the scents of cinnamon and fried chicken. She talks about life with her grandmother while slowly pushing her salad around her plate. “It’s never boring with my grandma,” she says, smiling. “Ever,” she follows up, in case I’m not convinced. “It’s just always fun, it’s always something to look forward to every time you wake up.”

Every morning, around 5 a.m., Johnson calls out Kayla’s name, sometimes ten times before her granddaughter actually moves. If that doesn’t work, Kayla feels the gentle poke of a cane; Johnson only has to reach across the bed—Kayla long ago abandoned her own twin bed in the room to crawl in bed with her grandmother every night.

Shantelle, now twenty-four, insists on having her own bedroom, which means Johnson and Kayla must share theirs. The Housing Authority won’t grant the family a three-bedroom unit, since regulations stipulate that children of the same gender must be at least ten years apart to warrant separate rooms, and the two sisters are separated by only seven. So the women make do. Johnson spends most of her evenings downstairs—watching a Western, or digging in a bag of crafts, lining up the beads, placing them on a stretch string one by one, making earrings, necklaces, and bracelets—while Kayla tucks away in their bedroom, seeking privacy, talking on her cell phone with friends. “This little crowded cubby hole,” Johnson says. “We don’t have nowhere to put nothing.”

Prior to what Johnson calls “this matchbox,” the family spent thirty-six years in a four-bedroom house as part of a scattered-site housing program comprising individual units dotting several city blocks. She recalls suddenly being forced to move. “They lied,” she says with a hearty laugh. “They told us that the building might cave in at any time.” Sure, a few bricks were loose under the window, but she thought it was an easy repair. “You know why they wanted me out?” she asks, leaning in as if to tell me a secret. “Because it was too much room for me and two kids that was all left there.”

If Johnson hadn’t immediately agreed to take the two-bedroom she’s in now, she says she would have had to relocate with Shantelle and Kayla to a shelter until her name was called from a housing waiting list. She was sixty-eight at the time, which made her eligible for both eldercare living facilities and senior homes, but neither facility accepted children, a nonnegotiable restriction.

Their apartment is small, but they’re all together—the one thing Johnson can control. She remembers the time that control was shaken. When Kayla was about eleven years old, a DHS investigator knocked on their door. Someone had called the child-abuse hotline, triggering an investigation of Johnson for neglect. Standing in her doorway, she went numb. He wanted to check that her home was clean and had hot running water. “I took him upstairs, showed him the bedroom, showed him the bathroom and the water,” she recalls. The most devastating part for Johnson was when she learned that, earlier that day, the DHS investigator had pulled Kayla out of her sixth-grade classroom in order to question her. Nothing came of the accusations, but the experience was enough for Johnson to be glad she never got Kayla involved with the foster-care system, regardless of the financial support she’d had to forgo. It was hard for Johnson to shake the feeling that Kayla could have been taken from her that day. As a result, “I have no dealings with DHS.”

  • “A lot of us are low income and we can’t afford to take in the kids, paying rent, paying for school uniforms, paying for food, different things like that.”

Many grandparents raising the children of incarcerated parents are low income, and their homes may not fit DHS’s middle-class standards. Potter, who has been helping parents navigate those standards for years, has come to think of them as neither culturally sensitive nor even achievable in many cases. One standard reads, “No unsuitable area such as a hall, stairway, unfinished attic or basement, garage, bathroom, eating area, closet, shed or detached building may be used as a sleeping area for children.” But Potters asks, “What defines unsuitable? Could some of those things be suitable if that’s the standard of living for that family? Like, if their children are already sleeping in an area that is jointly used as a living space and a bedroom, does that necessarily mean that they couldn’t take on their grandchild and also have that child sleep in an area that’s sometimes used as a living area and sometimes used as a bedroom?”

Johnson’s aversion to foster care comes from lived experience, from decades of entanglement with the system. She was only seven years old when, after their parents had separated, she and her four siblings were first thrust into foster care, bouncing from house to house for nearly a year. Her father, however, visited them often. During one visit, he discovered that one foster parent had locked his son in a closet. Furious, he packed up Johnson and her siblings and put them on a train to South Carolina, where he settled Johnson and one sister with his mother and placed the other three siblings with their aunt. Johnson’s father returned to work in Philadelphia, but regularly sent money to his mother and aunt to help support his children.

To Johnson’s surprise, she didn’t stay homesick for long. She enjoyed the open air of the country, the open fields, knocking nuts from trees, and baking fresh fruit pies with her grandmother. With a few exceptions, like purchasing wheat and flour, everything else seemed to be within reach thanks to her grandmother’s land. Johnson watched in wonderment as okra, tomatoes, corn, and watermelon sprouted from the soil. Any time she wanted a snack, she grabbed a stick and threw it up to a pear, apple, or fig tree and down tumbled a ripe piece of fruit. Her grandmother’s pigs were one source of meat. Her uncle also went fishing and hunting, often returning with rabbit, squirrel, possum, or turtle. “We really lived off the land,” she chuckles. “We really did. It wasn’t too much buying that my grandmom had to do.”

By the time her father arrived to collect her and her siblings, she didn’t want to leave. When she returned to Philadelphia, the city felt strange; she found herself yearning for the open space and fresh air of her grandmother’s. She was also far less protected in the city. A year after they arrived, when she was twelve, Johnson was raped and became pregnant. The birth of her daughter, Casandra, brought a new crisis: City caseworkers deemed her father’s apartment too small, and she and her newborn were placed in foster care. In junior high school, she met an older boy, “and I got pregnant again,” she says. At sixteen, her third daughter was born. Shortly after, she got a job waitressing and finally managed to leave foster care. She moved in with her stepmother and father, who had become disabled. Her three daughters, meanwhile, remained in foster care because her father’s home was not big enough to keep them all. Two years later, pregnant again, she moved in with her mother.

At eighteen, Johnson had her only son, Trevor—Kayla’s father—her only child who never entered the system. For years, she continued working and living with her mother, saving money and making plans for her independence. It took until her midtwenties to rent an apartment of her own. She started bringing her girls home every other weekend, and soon made plans to bring them home permanently. She brought her youngest home first. Then, her oldest because her situation became urgent: Casandra, by then a teenager, had been fending off sexual advances from her foster father, Johnson recalls. DHS policy is to remove a child from a foster home whenever an allegation of abuse is made, while an investigation takes place. But as soon as Johnson heard, she simply swooped in to remove her.

One by one, she brought her children home. And in light of her experience, keeping Kayla out of foster care was more than an easy decision: It was a deep commitment. “It didn’t work for me when I was little,” she said. “And then my children wind up in it. So that was it. Nobody else.”

Johnson’s long history with foster care surely influenced her apprehension toward DHS. Yet advocates say that as they step into parental voids left in the wake of incarceration, many grandparents feel alienated from the very system that was intended to support them. “A lot of grandparents don’t want them in the system,” says Jean Hackney, a volunteer leader of Grands as Parents, a small nonprofit that supports and informs Philadelphia grandparent caregivers. She recounts a conversation with one member, an informal kinship caregiver like Johnson, who told her a DHS worker responded to her concerns by saying she should feel “honored” to be able to take care of her grandchildren. “It wasn’t about the honor,” says Hackney, a grandparent caregiver herself. “It’s that she couldn’t afford it. A lot of us are low income and we can’t afford to take in the kids, paying rent, paying for school uniforms, paying for food, different things like that.”

Hackney says hosting fish fries and selling $12 bags of used clothes helps the organization keep the phone bills paid, the lights on. “You know what it means if I’m not getting paid,” she says, leaning her head down to look at me above her glasses. “My hips and my knees are killing me, but I come in here every day.” Hackney says that when grandparents who are informal caregivers seek a way to become formal kinship foster parents and encounter a DHS representative who is judgmental or dismissive, it alienates them. “When we are old, and we get these kids, we need somebody we can really sit down and talk to and not someone that will talk at us,” she says, arguing that caseworkers need to be retrained to approach caregivers with more sensitivity. “Some of them are so cold. That’s what I’ve seen and heard from members.”

Regardless of the degree of legal formality, in many cases involving parents in trouble, grandparents are simply expected to step in, regardless of the personal cost. Donna Oxford, a grandparent caregiver just outside of Philadelphia, was on her way to work in the summer of 2008 when she received a call from her newborn grandson’s maternal grandmother. The baby’s mother had been arrested for violating probation, and Oxford’s son was in and out of jail; the maternal grandmother was already caring for one grandchild and said she couldn’t keep the baby, Michael, just three months old.

Oxford says those first days were hard. She had just started her own wedding-planning business, a longtime dream, pulling off her first wedding the Saturday before she received that call. “My life totally changed,” she says, explaining that, in order to avoid the risk, she put her own business on hold in order to take a job as a receptionist. She loathed the prospect, but it was steady work. “I have a college degree and a partial master’s,” she says. “I hated doing that. It was demoralizing, but I was just like, ‘I want something that’s not stressful.’” The pay, meanwhile, was “awful.”

  • “If there are any resources, whatever it is, if it’s a pencil, I want to be able to tell my people they can get a pencil for the kids, too.”

The loss in earnings was catastrophic. Oxford had previously filed for bankruptcy, and in order to avoid foreclosure on her home, she had been making monthly payments while saving up for a balloon payment that was coming due. “I had the funds put away, but had to use them to support us.” She says Michael had health problems and needed around-the-clock care. “I ended up losing my home, which was really, really difficult. I’d lived there for over twenty years, and raised my kids there.” Eventually, she and Michael moved into an apartment.

At one point she’d asked a caseworker about the possibility of being a foster parent and was told, “‘Oh, trust me, you don’t want us in your life all the time.’” The comment may have been made in jest, but at the time it deeply discouraged her, and so she never pursued it.

Like Oxford, many grandparents step in to help at the first signs of trouble, unaware that this risks locking them out of substantial future financial support. “The problem is, they rescue them,” says Chartan Nelson of Grand Central, a kinship-care resource center in Philadelphia. Later, when they want to become kinship foster parents, they’re already too late. If a grandmother learns her daughter abandoned her children, she’s not going to call for help, Nelson says; she’s going straight to the kids. Even if a grandmother immediately calls DHS to say the children have been abandoned, they are, by virtue of being with a grandparent, technically considered safe with family.

Nelson says some workers take a shortcut, telling grandmothers to apply for food stamps first and then apply for custody later through domestic-relations court. If that happens, Nelson says, “you’re done for sure.” Once grandparents have swooped in and sought custody of their grandchildren through the courts, the children are outside of the foster system, and the grandparents are ineligible to become resource parents and receive the financial and social supports they need to raise their grandchildren. “We’re here to really say, ‘Don’t rescue them,’” she says. “You have to play hardball. Tell DHS to take the kids.” Nelson admits this is a tough scenario to navigate, and doesn’t recommend it when young children are involved. But in the end, her main concern is ensuring that grandparents are not locked out from support.

Nelson, a former foster parent herself, sits on several foster-care boards and keeps her ear to the ground for any resources she can direct toward the grandparents who inadvertently end up as informal caregivers. “If there are any resources, whatever it is, if it’s a pencil, I want to be able to tell my people they can get a pencil for the kids, too.”

When Oxford stepped up, she lost nearly a decade of earning power. Last year, she finally started her own business again, and gets by on that income plus $250 a month in Social Security disability benefits Michael gets through his father. It’s not the life she once had in mind, but, she says, “I think I’m making it work.”

Most informal grandparent caregivers, however, are barely making it. Philadelphia has a high poverty rate—higher than any other large American city—and an affordable-housing crisis, with more than 42 percent of families paying more than half of their income in rent or living in subpar conditions, which Potter says makes it hard for grandparents to obtain housing that would pass DHS standards. Potter believes a real solution lies in beefing up antipoverty programs. “We need preventative services in place for people who are in poverty—child care and housing assistance could prevent many children from entering the system,” she says. “Solutions lie in better housing subsidies, programs for people who are at risk of entering foster care, and more shelters. I also think if you could just give people more money to live on—like TANF—if you just give parents more money, they will be able to bring their family’s standard of living to such a significantly higher level.”

Kayla has learned to view trips to the movies or the mall as teenage luxuries, not necessities. Every cent counts. With the extra income from Social Security, she pays her cell phone bill, and buys school clothes and shoes on occasion, but after helping with groceries, she tries to save the rest. “I just stash that away. But then we wind up needing it for something else.”

Kayla sometimes wishes she had bus fare to meet up with her friends who live across town, or could buy a new dress for the spring dance. But, if she had that kind of money, she says she’d rather spend it doing something special for her grandmother. “She really deserves it. Everything she’s been through. Not just raising me, but raising everybody else.” She imagines taking her out “to some place she’s never been before, let her try some different foods. See if she likes it. See her face if she doesn’t like it. Keep her excited.”

Kayla says it’s difficult not having her mother around. But her grandmother’s vital role is not lost on her. “I’m grateful to actually be living with a family member rather than in a foster home with a bunch of people that I don’t really know,” she says. Lately, she’s been thinking a lot about life without her grandmother. “I don’t know why I’m always thinking this, but I’m always thinking that I’m going to wake up and one day she’s going to be in the bed and she’s not going to wake up. And I’m really scared that I’m just going to have to like—me and my sister are going to have to leave. It’s terrifying to think about it, but you got to think: When she does go, where are we going to go?” Kayla pauses, slowly stirring a bowl of ice cream. “We’re crazy about her.”

  • The thousands of dollars a year she could have received through DHS isn’t enough to convince Johnson that she made the wrong choice.

Johnson doesn’t know Kayla has this fear tugging at her. As of late, she’s preoccupied with Kayla’s acts of teenage rebellion, defying her grandmother’s wishes, even skipping church. Still, some days Kayla will surprise her grandmother like she did on Thanksgiving eve. While Johnson settled into a chair in the living room, Kayla prepared the entire Thanksgiving dinner, calling out for the correct measurements of flour, sugar, milk, and nutmeg. “I was amazingly shocked because she don’t do all that,” recalls Johnson. “She would help me cook Thanksgiving dinner, but I didn’t really have to do anything.” At a family gathering that day, Johnson bragged to everyone about how proud she was.

The thousands of dollars a year she could have received through DHS isn’t enough to convince Johnson that she made the wrong choice. As for Kayla, she basks in being her grandma’s baby. But she also admits to feeling bouts of sadness when she considers what her life could have been with her parents, or when her friends talk about their experiences with their own mothers. Over the last four years, Kayla has managed to visit her mother in jail fairly often, through a Girl Scouts program known as Beyond Bars. Over time, she’s developed a relationship with her mother, embracing her resilient cheerfulness, the way she seems to cherish the moments they do share. When she talks to her mother about a break up, they’ll embrace, and her mother will tell her a story or try to make her laugh. “Don’t worry,” Ebony will say. “He must be crazy not wanting to be with you anymore.” Those moments are magic for Kayla, and too rare. “She’ll comfort me, and we’ll just talk and talk and talk all night.”

Last year, Kayla was admitted to the hospital when, during a wisdom-tooth extraction, the dentist identified an irregularity in her heartbeat. This landed her in the ICU. As she lay in the hospital bed, her phone rang. On the other end was Ebony, sobbing. “She thought something really, really, really bad was happening,” Kayla says. “She thought I was gonna need surgery or something.” Her condition was, in fact, serious, but she was practiced enough to know to try to quell her mother’s fears, since she was helpless in jail. “Well, they said it wasn’t really that serious,” she told her. “I just need to calm down, take pills and stuff.” Ebony assured Kayla that she’d be home within weeks and would enter a drug-treatment program in Erie, Pennsylvania.

Ebony came home, sought treatment. Kayla visited her in Erie. Not long ago, Ebony left the program and asked Johnson if she could move in. Johnson refused, but then called around to see if anyone might be renting a room. Eventually Ebony ended up living with her sister, who lived nearby. Not long after that, she and Kayla spent the weekend together.

Johnson says she hopes Ebony can finally stay clean for her daughter—for their daughter. “I’m hoping this is a big turnaround,” she says. “I know for Kayla it would be, because she’s crazy about her mom. She’s crazy about her mom regardless of what she does or what she did. She loves her mom. And that’s good. That’s good.”

Johnson says she’ll take as many nights with Kayla next to her in the bed as she can, but her mothering duties stop with her. Johnson has seventeen grandchildren, some thirty great-grandchildren, and about twelve great-great-grandchildren. I ask her how she feels about spending her life raising her grandchildren and she gives me the raw truth.

“Like I feel I don’t never want to go through it again,” she says seriously. Caught by surprise, I laugh, and she joins me. “I told ’em, ‘You know what you can do? Y’all can have all the babies you want and bring ’em by and let me see ’em. But when you leave, take ’em with you,’” she says, still chuckling.

“‘Don’t even go to the store. Take it with you,’” the joke continues. “Might go to the store and don’t come back for two days or more. And I know I’d be having a fit. Oh, no. Take it with you!”

“I tell them,” she says, still laughing, “I’m so done, I’m burned up.”

This article was reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute, now known as Type Investigations, where Sylvia A. Harvey is a reporting fellow.

About the reporter

Sylvia A. Harvey

Sylvia A. Harvey

Sylvia A. Harvey is a reporting fellow with The Investigative Fund and a journalist based in New York.

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