“They didn’t want me to have Walter because of my age. But I finally convinced them that age has nothing to do with love…What I had to give was love. And that’s what Walter needed . . . I never doubted that I could help Walter. Never, if they gave me the chance. If you have the courage and the faith and the strength God will do the rest.”
Mrs. Viola Dees epitomized mother love, and her story has stayed with me since 2000 when 89-year-old Mrs. Dees and her 9-year-old grandson Walter were the subjects of the Academy Award-winning documentary Big Mama. It followed Mrs. Dees’ struggles to keep a promise to her late son and raise Walter in an effort to keep him out of the child welfare system. Mrs. Dees gained custody of Walter when he was 4. His mother was addicted to crack cocaine before he was born and Walter spent time in foster care before he went to live with his grandmother. The documentary shows her determined efforts to fight constant bureaucratic concerns about her age and do everything a growing boy needed, including keeping up with him at the playground and catching his rebounds as he played basketball. In the turmoil and uncertainty after Mrs. Dees suffered a heart attack Walter set fire to their home and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital – yet even then his grandmother stood by him and was heartbroken as he was committed to a residential facility and taken out of her care. I’ve carried that picture of Mrs. Dees with me for these past 16 years, watching him shoot hoops and sticking by him until her end.
Mrs. Dees faced dramatic challenges, but in her love, tenacity, and absolute unconditional dedication to Walter she was far from alone. On Mother’s Day and every day we must remember and celebrate not just birth mothers but grandmothers, adoptive mothers, foster mothers, aunts, sisters, cousins, and all those with a mothering spirit who have reached out to raise and care for children who need them and made those children their own.
More than 5.8 million children are living in households headed by grandparents. Even when parents also live in the home many grandparents assume the parental role. Nearly half of these children are living with grandparents who say they are responsible for their grandchildren, and close to a million have no parent present in the home. More than a third of the 1.6 million grandmothers who say they are responsible for grandchildren are like Mrs. Dees – over 60 years old. So many children have been diverted from the child welfare system to live with a grandparent and sometimes their grandparents are their foster parents or legal guardians.
Grandparents and other relatives often step in because the children’s needs are great and they want to keep their family together. Of the more than 415,000 children in foster care, three quarters are in foster family homes – 29 percent with relatives. Some of these foster mothers and fathers care for children short term – others much longer. Over half of the children adopted in 2014 were adopted by their foster parents. Like all mothers, those stepping into that role need help to offer children unconditional love, permanence, and special services to help children recover from the trauma in their lives.
Congress has taken some important steps to increase support for children being raised by kin and hopefully will do more this year. In 2008, Congress provided funds for Guardianship Assistance Payments for relatives who had cared for children as foster parents for at least six months and were committed to caring for them permanently. The Family First Act being proposed by Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Ron Wyden (D-OR), Chair and Ranking Member of the Senate Finance Committee, would reach a broader group of children at risk of placement in foster care who could be well cared for by relatives. It would help with time-limited mental health, substance abuse prevention and treatment, and in-home parent support services, and for some, kinship navigator services and short-term financial assistance. And, as an alternative to foster care, funds also would be available to help children remain safely with their birth parents.
My own mother fostered children and finding another child in my room or a pair of my shoes gone was far from unusual. After Daddy died nearly a dozen foster children followed my sister, three brothers and me as we left home for college. Mama always wanted to find ways for the children to return safely home or to find loving adoptive families to care for them permanently. I remember her trying to convince some of my family members to adopt the young beautiful twins she is shown with here. While her family members did not adopt them, a loving stable couple did and they are thriving young adults today.
So as we celebrate mothers and grandmothers, foster mothers, and all those who step in to parent children in need, let’s pledge to take responsibility not only for our own children and grandchildren but for all children or at least for one child who may not be our own. Imagine if every faith congregation in the United States took responsibility to assure a permanent family for just one child, we would be able to assure no children are left in limbo without a permanent family to call their own.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to staging.childrensdefense.org.
Mrs. Edelman’s Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.