Mercedes Bristol with the five grandchildren she is raising. Photo by James McCandless

For the past 10 years, Carmen Amador and her husband have been raising three of their grandchildren. The Amadors decided to take them in when their son’s wife repeatedly showed abusive behavior towards her children. She often neglected to feed and change them and left them alone for hours at a time.

Soon after being granted conservatorship, the Amadors’ son divorced his wife and later moved to Kansas, leaving his children with the Amadors. At present, the children’s mother can see them every other weekend, but her abusive behavior hasn’t changed.

Three years ago, Amador was trying to wrap her mind around taking care of two disabled grandchildren and she worried about the lack of resources and financial support available to someone in her situation. After joining the local Grandparents Raising Grandchildren (GRG) support group, she became privy to a variety of financial and legal tools at her disposal.

Amador’s situation is more commonplace that one might think. Grandparents Raising Grandchildren has two support groups in San Antonio with an estimated 45 members – all grandparents who have stepped up to take care of their grandchildren. The group estimates that there are approximately 30,000 grandparents raising grandchildren in Bexar County alone.

For Mercedes Bristol, a retired single grandmother, the task of raising five grandchildren after their parents were declared unfit was daunting.

“The first day we went shopping for school supplies. It was overwhelming – financially and emotionally,” she said.

Bristol said that it was only until she joined Grandparents Raising Grandchildren that she learned about pockets in the system where she could apply for help. This included the McKinney-Vento Act, which mandates local school districts to identify and serve the needs of homeless children, and the Learning Tree, a low-cost after school program provided by Northside Independent School District (NISD), in which she enrolled her kids.

Bristol wondered why there wasn’t a resource list available for grandparents in her situation. She decided to start another support group to talk to others and collect any information they might have. Despite being able to connect with people in similar situations, she still struggled with her new responsibilities.

“How do you make them feel that they’re well rounded, that they’re not missing out on anything?” she would ask herself.

One child in her care suffers from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Bristol said that her state of emotional detachment from her children and the subsequent reattachment to the grandchildren added to the struggle.

Delia Martinez and her husband are raising their three grandchildren.  Photo by James McCandless.
Delia Martinez and her husband are raising their three grandchildren.  Photo by James McCandless.

Delia Martinez and her husband were preparing for retirement and getting rid of anything in the house they didn’t need. Shortly after, their son was arrested and his wife didn’t want to care for their children anymore.

“She was about 21 and she said that she wasn’t old enough to have children,” Martinez said. “She didn’t go to school, she didn’t work. She had another boyfriend that she had two daughters with.”

Martinez and her husband were forced to return to work in order to care for their three grandchildren. The children suffered from separation anxiety to the point where Martinez had to sleep in the same bed, with her arms wrapped around them.

Ten years later, Martinez and her husband are still trying to make ends meet. Going back to their jobs wasn’t enough to cover the kids’ expenses, so they’ve had to rely on donations from friends and family. Martinez connected to various resources through her involvement with the Grandparents Raising Grandchildren group, but she still didn’t feel like her care for the kids was enough.

“My husband dropped me off at the courthouse at 7 a.m,” she said. “I was sitting there waiting to go in and talk to Judge Peter Sakai.”

After some persistence and a few more meetings, they convinced Sakai, along with the other judges on the Bexar County Children’s Court, to form a legal task force. When Martinez met with Bexar County Judge Richard Garcia, he was ready to send grandparents to the support group immediately.

“He asked me, ‘Where have you been? How come we haven’t heard about y’all?’” Martinez said. She told him that they were just getting started.

The problem isn’t confined to one part of town or even San Antonio itself, Martinez explained.

“This doesn’t just affect the Westside or Southside,” she said. “It’s (in) all areas of the community. We have grandparents coming all the way from New Braunfels, Seguin, and Hondo. We’re reaching out to everybody because this is an epidemic.”

Martinez thinks that the more grandparents know about the resources and assistance out there, the smaller the likelihood that the children will become involved with drugs, crime, or similar factors that could repeat the cycle.

Christine Hortick provides pro-bono legal services to Grandparents Raising Grandchildren.  Photo by James McCandless

Christine Hortick, an attorney with Hortick & Collins, said that these situations are becoming all too familiar. Her firm started providing legal assistance to Grandparents Raising Grandparents members pro bono when she became aware of the lack of resources available to grandparents.

“The San Antonio Bar Association‘s pro bono wing is overrun with cases (and) Legal Aid is overrun,” Hortick said. “St. Mary’s Law School has a Legal and Social Justice Center that helps, but apart from those three organizations, there isn’t a lot of help.”

The pro bono work covers grandparents’ rights to their child’s medical care, getting the proper court documents to enroll them in school, providing translation assistance, and other matching services, Hortick said.

The biggest legal issue that grandparents face, according to Hortick, is dealing with physical custody, meaning that they provide shelter for the children but don’t have documentation to make it a legal arrangement.

“They’re free to hire an attorney and go to court to get custody,” Hortick said. “The issue here is (also) financial. These grandparents do not have the resources to hire an attorney at full or reduced rates.”

Hortick has seen a lot of grandparents get by on handwritten notes from their children, which informally grants them custody of their grandchildren.

Child Protective Services (CPS) can be helpful, but there are gaps, she explained. For grandparents taking care of kids who were not abused, only abandoned, CPS won’t offer any assistance – the organization only steps in to help when a child is in danger.

“They don’t have the State of Texas assisting in the legal process of conservatorship,” Hortick said. “They’re left to fend for themselves.”

Within a short time period, Grandparents Raising Grandchildren was able to meet with several officials who all committed to assist them. State Sen. José Menéndez (D-26) offered to help write a bill that would facilitate grandparents’ access to financial assistance.

This past May, Menéndez supported the group in organizing a resource fair to raise more awareness and provide assistance to grandparents who struggle with raising their grandchildren. More than 100 participants attended workshops on how to adjust to parenting as a grandparent, knowing your legal rights, and learning to work with CPS.

Bristol and Martinez also have reached out to educators in order to establish support groups in various areas of the city. So far, they’ve been able to help groups get off the ground at several elementary schools within NISD.

Top image: Mercedes Bristol with the five grandchildren she is raising.  Photo by James McCandless.

Related Stories:

City, County Advocates Collaborate to Fight Child Abuse in Bexar County 

Child Abuse: A Silent Epidemic in Bexar County

Hope Center Aims to Break the Cycle of Child Abuse

An Advocate for Mentally Ill Children Brings Her Cause to San Antonio

Former intern James McCandless is a recent St. Mary's University graduate. He has worked with the San Antonio Current and Texas Public Radio.