Student helps troubled ‘grandfamilies’

By By Jaime Winston

By Jaime Winston

Christine Passey remembers working with a grandmother whose granddaughter ran away.

The teenage girl had stopped going to school and was writing to someone in prison.

Passey could tell the grandmother was worried, so she talked to her about how to work with the teen.

Passey, a senior in social work, has an internship with the Grandfamilies program, which assists families that have been formed after a relative gains custody of a child.

Through the program, the grandmother was able to have an intervention with the teen and eventually enrolled her in Horizonte, an alternative high school in Salt Lake City. The teen also moved in with her grandparents.

Passey said she entered the program because she had never worked with children and wanted the experience. The hardest part of the program has been hearing the stories of the children she works with, she said.

“Knowing what kids have gone through — what their parents have put them through — breaks my heart,” she said. “In general, there’s a lot of sexual abuse. There’s a lot of neglect. There’s a lot of physical abuse and emotional abuse.”

Grandfamilies, which is run through the Children’s Service Society of Utah, holds adult support and children support groups at the same time. The groups’ curriculum often correlate, so when the adult group is discussing substance abuse, the children’s group is as well.

To teach children about substance abuse, Passey has them break string wrapped around their hands, adding more layers until the string can no longer be broken.

“It shows them that eventually addiction isn’t easy to break away from,” she said.

About 350 families have gone through the program in the three years since it was launched, said Jacci Graham, a licensed clinical social worker and director of Grandfamilies.

Most of the participant families have come together because a parent has a drug addiction and at least 75 percent of those cases are methamphetamine related, Graham said.

“The meth epidemic has just raised havoc with families,” Graham said. “The success rate for getting off meth is very poor. You have a 60 percent chance of getting off cocaine or heroine, but less than a 10 percent chance of getting off of meth.”

Graham has been with the program since it began and has only worked with one family whose circumstances weren’t drug related, she said.

About 42,000 children are being raised by relatives in Utah, according to the Grandfamilies program, which serves the Salt Lake and Tooele counties. Less than 3 percent of those children receive any sort of government support, Graham said.

She said the average age of kinship caregivers is between 55 and 63, but some of her clients are in their 20s.

“Grandmothers internalize the situation as more of a sadness and depression, while grandfathers are angrier about the situation,” Graham said. “These new families have a whole new set of dynamics that need to be addressed,”

Cheryl Leach, a Tooele resident, took full custody of her grandson when her daughter, who had a substance abuse problem, gave him to Leach after learning he had autism.

“The biggest challenge (of having a new caregiver) is the child doesn’t understand the new boundaries,” Leach said. “They still have loyalty to the parent even though the parent has caused them so much hardship. They never want to give up hope that maybe someday they’ll be united with the parent.”

Leach, who works at Salt Lake County Youth EmployAbility Services, has set a tight schedule for interaction between her grandson and his mother.

“You have to look at what’s best for his interests,” she said.

Other participant families develop after a parent puts the oldest child, sometimes as young as five years old, in charge of the household while he or she is away. And sometimes a parent leaves the child with a relative to baby-sit and ends up not coming back.

Graham remembers one situation where a mother didn’t want her little girl to see her using drugs, so she locked the child in a closet while she was using drugs. At times, the girl was in the closet for 72 hours.

In therapy Graham discovered that one boy had been tearing apart and ruining the clothing his new guardian had given him because he was used to having dirty clothes and living out of a car. Clean clothes felt unnatural to him.

“A lot of caregivers have the mistaken idea that if they love these children it will be enough — and it isn’t,” Graham said. “These children have experienced a lot of losses and grief. A lot have lost their childhood.”

“(My work with Grandfamilies) makes me think about the things I want to train my kids about and help them think about,” said Passey, who is expected to give birth to a baby in January. “Just doing the group in general has given me a different insight on kids, so I’ve really enjoyed it.”

Passey has developed a more than 100-page curriculum, which she plans to leave for future volunteers when she completes her internship.

“I will hopefully be doing children’s groups after the baby is born,” she said. “I’ve gained an understanding of working with children.”

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Maegan Burr