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Going Beyond the Dollar: Strengthening the Support System of Grandfamilies

January 10, 2023 Category: FeatureFeaturedLongPeople

By: Jennifer Stavrakos, Interim Director of the Great Learning Program, William Penn Foundation,
Guest Contributor

In Philadelphia, more than 17,000 children are estimated to live in homes where grandparents provide their primary care. These families are known as grandfamilies, and there are many reasons why they may form, including biological parents’ death or challenges with illness, substance use, or incarceration. They can also be created when parents who are immigrants must return to their home country for long stretches of time.

Regardless of the reasons why children enter the care of their grandparents, thousands of older adults in Philadelphia are carrying the load of caregiving. And while they can struggle in this role at times, they ultimately have so much gratitude for the relationships they have with grandchildren and the experiences they get to share with them. Many children benefit from the love, support, and stability of being raised by their grandparents, and we should make it easier for older caregivers to assume the parenting role if that’s what they decide they should do.

Supportive Older Women’s Network (SOWN), which supports older adults, first introduced The William Penn Foundation to the unique challenges that set grandfamilies apart from other families in Philadelphia. For example, the transition to becoming a grandfamily is often sudden, leaving caregivers and children with minimal financial or social supports. We wanted to learn more about the services currently available to grandfamilies in Philadelphia and what was needed to strengthen the system of supports so that they and their children can thrive.

Understanding the Landscape

To understand grandfamilies’ needs and experiences on a local level – rather than apply national data or trends – The William Penn Foundation’s Great Learning Program engaged Generations United (GU), a policy, research, technical assistance, and advocacy organization dedicated to improving the lives of intergenerational families. In 2019, GU began a landscape assessment of grandfamilies in Philadelphia. The timing intersected with the onset of the pandemic, so the resulting report includes the immediate impacts of the pandemic and how the related isolation and school closures affected grandfamilies. (GU’s report, Grandfamilies of Philadelphia.

From our Partners

The research in this report was designed to help kinship service providers, educators, policymakers, funders, and other community members better understand grandfamilies in Philadelphia, their needs, and the degree to which they are aware of and able to access services.

Using demographic data and interviews with Philadelphia grandparent caregivers and service providers, Generations United reported a need for organizations and systems that interact with grandfamilies – including schools, housing or health providers, and legal organizations – to improve their outreach and engagement in ways that meet the unique needs of diverse grandfamilies.

Insufficient financial resources, especially early in a grandparent’s new caregiver role, were cited as a key challenge by many interviewed for the report. For example, grandparents may be retired and living on a fixed income when they bring grandchildren into their care. If the child is still in diapers or taking formula, that’s hundreds of dollars in new, recurring expenses. In the early weeks of becoming a full-time caregiver again, grandparents often first turn to trusted community organizations for support to purchase cribs, clothing, toys, and other necessities for children.

The report also noted other challenges including:

  • Difficulty navigating agency and government services;
  • Children with unaddressed behavioral health needs;
  • The impact of the new parenting role on caregivers’ physical and mental health;
  • Navigating the school curriculum and virtual education;
  • Insufficient opportunities for caregivers to overcome isolation; and,
  • Legal hurdles to achieve child and family stability.

Supporting A Learning Community

Recognizing the important role of family members and the home environment in children’s learning and development, The William Penn Foundation recently made grants of $2.8 million over three years to eight local organizations working to improve or expand their services for grandfamilies: Coalition of African Communities (Africom), Grand Central, Masjid Al-Wasatiyah Wal-ItidaalPhiladelphia Housing AuthorityPradera CorporationSeniorLAW Center, Supportive Older Women’s Network (SOWN), and Turning Points for Children.

These eight organizations each have a unique role and were identified based on where they fit into the ecosystem of grandfamily support. They represent small, grassroots organizations and large multi-service agencies. Some of the organizations provide services to families that are part of the formal foster care system, some work with families that choose to remain outside of the system (as informal caregivers), and one organization proposes to work with families that completed the adoption or permanent guardian process but are still in need of services to strengthen the family unit. Two organizations’ efforts to support grandfamilies are in the early stages, and they plan to serve a limited number of families as they build their capacity.

With the support of Generations United, we will support a learning community, that will hopefully lay the groundwork for a more cohesive network and more robust referral and resource system for supporting grandfamilies in Philadelphia.

Lessons Learned

Research can help foundations to identify the most pressing needs and challenges in a particular area or sector, and  help them be more strategic and effective in their philanthropic efforts.

We were aware of some of the barriers faced by grandfamilies from conversations with several grantees, but it was important for us to do the landscape analysis prior to funding to gain a better understanding of the scope of the challenges facing these families, their inherent strengths, the ways in which existing systems and organizations were currently serving them, and the gaps that existed that aligned with the foundation’s funding priorities.

Peer learning groups can provide a supportive and collaborative environment for nonprofits to discuss challenges and find solutions together, which can help to build capacity and improve outcomes.

Each of the funded organizations occupies a different space in the continuum of services, has varying degrees of experience providing targeted services for grandfamilies, and are often operating in silos. The learning community provides a space for collaborative learning and relationship building which will be essential to better meeting the needs of families.

Our goal is to support an evaluation of the grant cluster and examine the impact of the learning community. This will inform and strengthen services for grandfamilies in other communities, locally and nationally, and identify additional gaps in the local ecosystem that could potentially be addressed by public and private funding sources.


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