Grandparents give all to offer kids the best chance
THEY say it takes a village to raise a child but these days, increasingly, it takes grandparents with big hearts.
They take over the care of their grandchildren, often in the most difficult of circumstances, with little thanks, funding or support.
That's something May Benstead, the convener of Toowoomba's Grandparents and Carers Raising Children, wants to see changed, with greater legal recognition for the growing number of grandparents raising children, greater funding and uniform laws nationwide.
She has cared for three grandchildren and still has full-time care of her nine-year-old grandson due to her daughter's mental and physical health problems.
"She couldn't cope and she put her hand up and said 'Mum, help me'. I have a lot of respect for her for that," Mrs Benstead said.
She says caring for grandchildren is an emotional rollercoaster.
Often the children come into their care because their parents have mental health issues, are abusing drugs or alcohol, or there is domestic violence.
Sometimes it is due to physical health problems or the death of the parents. In all cases the children are emotionally scarred, often don't fully understand why they aren't with mum and dad, and often act out.
Then there is the parents themselves, the children of the grandparents, some of whom blame the grandparents for losing their children and emotionally or physically abuse them.
Grandparents also face economic problems, with many who may have retired, having to return to work.
In many cases, Mrs Benstead said, they also lose their social circle, because they don't have the same time to devote to hobbies or people their own age, and old friends don't understand what they are going through.
That's where her support group, which meets fortnightly, comes into its own.
"Getting the right help is what I struggled with," Mrs Benstead said.
"It can be very isolating and it's such a relief to be able to talk to someone older who understands what you are going through.
"I've had grandparents come to me and cry for four hours - they are just so frustrated and sad and they think they are the only ones going through this."
Sadly, this is far from the truth. There are 40 permanent members of the Toowoomba support group and many others who simply ring for support.
In fact, Mrs Benstead fields calls from across the country and said there were at least 200 grandparents in Toowoomba and 50,000 Australia-wide with permanent care of their grandchildren.
"I'm not a counsellor; I can't give advice. I'm just a grandma. But I can listen and give support and I know what services and funding are available," Mrs Benstead said.
She told how the group had worked in shifts offering feeding, cleaning and shopping to a grandmother taking on care of a newborn and helped with emergency food, clothes and toys for grandparents in Oakey who unexpectedly took on the care of four children.
She said while it disrupted their own lives, grandparents were willing to make the sacrifice to care for their grandchildren because "we've got to give these kids a safe environment. That's the important thing".
"No child is bad,"Mrs Benstead said. "They just go off the rails. We (grandparents) only live in hope that they come back again."
If you need support, call Mrs Benstead on 0439 717 586, or contact Supporting Queensland Grandparents on 1300 135 500 for information and/or referrals on parenting, legal, financial, social and leisure activities, family conflict, health, child care, aged care and counselling support.