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Parenthood, the sequel: Grandparents increasingly becoming responsible for raising kids' children

Fargo residents Connie and Rick Goss have adopted their 11-year-old granddaughter, Raina. (Dave Wallis/Forum News Service)

While other couples their age are closing in on retirement, Connie and Rick Goss are shuttling their granddaughter to summer activities and preparing to help her transition from elementary to middle school this fall.

The Fargo couple has taken a sharp U-turn along life’s path by adopting 11-year-old Raina after she was removed from her home due to her parents’ problems with drug addiction. It’s been 30 years since the Gosses have had a school-age child in the house.

“It’s kind of a learning experience all over again,” Connie said.

Connie, 63, a veterinary clinic receptionist, and Rick, 64, a metal fabricator, are part of a growing number of grandparents raising their grandchildren. In some circles, they’re known as GRG’s or ‘grandfamilies.’ The organization “Generations United” says they could number 2.7 million nationwide.

According to the AARP’s “GrandFacts” report based on the 2010 U.S. Census, more than 2,700 grandparents in North Dakota were household heads caring for their grandchildren. Of those, 47 percent are solely responsible, with no parents of the children present in the home.

In Minnesota, more than 21,740 grandparents had their grandchildren living with them. Of those, 33 percent are raising them on their own.

Jessica Bertapelle, an assistant professor of journalism and communication and a researcher at Wichita State University in Kansas, says there’s reason to believe those numbers are now even higher. Many see a tie to the country’s worsening opioid epidemic, which has left some unable or unwilling to parent their kids.

Grandfamilies almost always arise from some kind of trauma, said Bertapelle, who researches the subject. It could include drug or alcohol addiction, parental abuse or neglect, divorce, incarceration, mental illness or a death.

“I have yet to find a happy situation that resulted in this situation,” she said.

There are obvious benefits, however, to the young and old in the relationship. Bertapelle would know— she was raised by her grandmother.

“She inherited this 15 year old who was traumatized, but she gave me unconditional love and support,” Bertapelle said.

‘It’s complicated’

If people ask Raina about her living situation, the perky pre-teen with strawberry-blond hair prefers to keep her answer short.

“Sometimes I say like ‘It’s complicated’ so I don’t really have to explain it to them,” she said.

Connie and Rick were alerted to trouble for their granddaughter about three years ago, when they learned she’d missed more than 30 days of second grade.

Raina was living with her mother in Ada, Minn. at the time, while her father lived in Fargo.

It soon became clear neither parent could care for Raina properly.

“They weren’t able to see that she got the proper education, or support her even emotionally,” Connie said, so she and her husband began the process of taking her in.

But you don’t just ‘take’ your grandchild, she said. “We had to go through the court steps.”

They first took Raina in as a foster child, then were granted legal custody. It was tricky, Connie said, to coordinate everything between Norman County in Minnesota and Cass County in North Dakota, but it all worked out.

Now, Raina enjoys the stable atmosphere of her grandparents’ home, something she didn’t have before.

“I like it here. I have a nice comfortable bed, I have nice food to eat,” Raina said.

After two years, Connie and Rick decided it would be beneficial for everyone if they adopted her — a move Raina’s birth parents agreed to.

With the adoption finalized earlier this month, Connie and Ross are legally Raina’s parents, though she plans to keep calling them grandma and grandpa.

“They’re awesome, I love them so much,” Raina said.

‘We got more back’

Even though the couple’s retirement plans are now up in the air, they never once doubted their decision and don’t feel they gave up much to take Raina in.

“So what if we never drive a brand new car, ever? So what if we never take another Caribbean cruise?” Connie said.

“You just have to know what your main goals are.”

In fact, she feels they’re receiving more from their granddaughter in return.

“Everyone tells us how lucky she is, but in truth we are the lucky ones,” Connie said. “She has enriched our lives and given our lives a new purpose.”

That’s not to say there aren’t challenges. Finances and schedules are tighter, and they can’t “spoil” their granddaughter like they once did.

“When we had her every other weekend, we always wanted to do something special, and now, we can’t afford to do that all the time,” Connie said.

There are resources available for help with income, nutrition and health care, but Bertapelle says they’re often difficult for grandparents to track down. And some support services are underutilized.

As an example, the North Dakota Department of Human Services reports that 329 caregivers were served through its Family Caregiver Support Program during federal fiscal year 2015. Of that total, only two were grandparents raising grandkids. The rest used the resource for respite care, or help caring for an aging or ill family member.

Another difficulty is isolation, because grandparents often don’t know of others who are in their shoes. Mental health issues can crop up.

For the Gosses, it’s been a positive experience and they’re focusing on helping Raina succeed in school, make good friends and go to college someday.

“She would have gone into the foster system if we hadn’t taken her,” Connie said. “We feel like it’s another chance to do right by her.”

Grandparenting by the numbers

Minnesota: 21,744 grandparents are household heads raising grandchildren; 67 percent are White and not Hispanic, 13% are Black/African American; 15 percent live in poverty

North Dakota: 2,716 grandparents are household heads raising grandchildren; 62 percent are White and not Hispanic, 31% are American Indian and Alaska Native; 21 percent live in poverty

Source: AARP GrandFacts, based on 2010 U.S. Census