POJOAQUE — The artificial Christmas tree in Dolores Sly’s single-wide trailer at the Butterfly Springs Mobile Home Park is missing a leg and standing upright only with the support of a bicycle tire pump rigged at the base.
If it were up to Sly, whose Christmas spirit died the day one of her daughters died by suicide, there would be no tree at all.
But she has to consider her 9-year-old great-granddaughter, Azzy, whom the 72-year-old took into her home and has been raising largely on her own since the girl’s parents got lost in a destructive world of drugs when Azzy was just 3, Sly said.
“Since Azzy came, we do celebrate Christmas,” said Sly, who petitioned a court to become the girl’s legal guardian several years ago. “We have to for her.”
Across Northern New Mexico and throughout the nation, grandparents, aunts, uncles and even great-grandparents like Sly are making similar sacrifices and taking on the life-changing responsibility of raising children whose parents are unwilling or unable to care for their kids themselves.
“This trend of grandparents raising grandchildren has been increasing over the past 30 years in our state and across the country,” according to a 2017 report on the issue.
New Mexico’s numbers have risen significantly, with the number of grandchildren raised by grandparents going from 47,382 in 2005 to 55,259 in 2015. The percentage of grandparent-headed households jumped from 6.3 percent in 1970 to 10.9 percent in 2015.
“This is a critical issue,” the report states, “with consequences for our families, our communities and our government.”
The Con Alma Health Foundation commissioned the report after hearing anecdotally of a rising tide in grandparents raising grandchildren in the state, said Dolores Roybal, the organization’s executive director.
“Everyone I would talk to, everywhere I went, people would make that comment that it’s increasing,” said Roybal, who raised two nephews. “I just wanted to make sure.”
Roybal said a lot of people immediately blame drugs, and agrees they are a key element.
“But there are other economic factors,” she said. “One has to do with more women going into the military. There aren’t that many good paying jobs with benefits, so we’re seeing that there are more women going into the military because it provides them with better opportunities.”
Other factors include incarceration and teen pregnancy.
“With young parents, they’re not always in the position to support themselves and a child or children, so when there’s high teen pregnancy, you’re going to see that that’s also a correlation,” Roybal said.
Drugs, however, were the reason two different families interviewed by The New Mexican said they took in children.
“The little one came from another state in a car seat when she was 2 years old,” said Maria, a Santa Fe County woman in her 70s who asked that her last name not be used to protect the privacy of the three grandchildren she is raising.
Maria said the children, who used to live in the Midwest, were doing OK with their parents in the beginning. But their mother got hooked on opiates — and then harder drugs — after a car accident, she said.
“Their mother abandoned them,” she said.
The children’s father, who is Maria’s son, has been in their lives off and on as he, too, struggles with addiction.
“He would get treatment and then it would last for six months or eight months and then back on,” Maria said. “I was always on watch, always on guard.”
Maria, a widow, said she didn’t think twice about caring for her grandchildren.
“It’s our tradition, our culture: take care of our own,” said Maria, who is Hispanic. “They really had no one else to turn to but me.”
She said her decision to raise three grandchildren has derailed her plans to travel during her retirement years.
“It has killed my spirit for what I wanted to do, but it has lifted my spirit in seeing my life through them,” she said. “I see they get excited when they’re going to go to an event at school. That makes my spirit go up because I know that I did that. I didn’t let them down. I managed. No matter what they needed, I managed to do it.”
When her granddaughter went to prom, Maria said she bought her a new dress from Macy’s “like the other girls wore,” as well as new shoes. She also paid for her to get her hair and nails done.
“It was a one-time thing that for her, it probably erased three years of bad memories,” she said. “It lifted her, so that was like giving her good medicine.”
Getting help for grandparents
Megan Delano, executive director of Española-based Las Cumbres Community Services, said the organization started a grandparents raising grandchildren program in 2009 after seeing a growing need, particularly in Rio Arriba County.
“We were encountering grandparents who were really struggling with lots of different types of issues regarding raising their grandkids,” she said. “A lot of them were making decisions between buying their medication or paying for the needs of their grandchildren. It really is putting people who are living on a fixed income in a really big bind.”
The program, which now serves about 60 families, has expanded to Taos and Santa Fe counties since then. But a majority of those in the program live in Rio Arriba County, where some 53 percent of children under the age of 5 are being raised by grandparents. The number is probably closer to 60 percent when other family members, such as aunts and uncles, are included, said Stacey Frymier, Las Cumbres’ director of child and family services.
“We’re only helping a fraction of the families who are facing this challenge,” Frymier said.
And challenging it is.
“The biggest is financial,” said Sly, who is raising her great-granddaughter in Pojoaque. “I make biscochitos to sell so that I can have money. I’ve got to always have a little bit of cash for if she wants something. I’ve always promised myself that everything wouldn’t be, ‘No, we don’t have the money’ or ‘No, we can’t afford it,’ so I’ve tried everything I can.”
But reality sometimes intervenes.
On Monday evening, for example, the family had difficulty finding money to pay admission for a lantern launch hosted by a nearby casino.
Sly, who lives off Social Security benefits, said she receives $255 a month under the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to help care for Azzy.
“I don’t know where the Legislature thinks we can raise a child on $255 a month,” she said.
It’s the kind of complaint that has reached the ears of state officials, and Brian Blalock, secretary of the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department, said changes are in the works.
“On the money side, we’re redoing our rate structure right now so that we can more appropriately pay relatives and community placements an appropriate amount of money that’s directly related to the needs of the child,” he said. “We’re getting input from foster parents and relatives right now, and then we’ll be rolling that out in the first couple of months next year.”
Blalock said the state wants to make sure it is providing grandparents enough money to be able to take care of children and not rack up credit card debt or suddenly find themselves behind on their utility bills or rent or mortgage payments.
“That adds stress to an already stressful situation,” he said.
Blalock said the state received federal funding “to get a kickstart on creating kinship navigators” who will help grandparents and other family members raising children. The “navigators” will provide case management and help kin maneuver through bureaucratic hurdles. Legal services also will be offered, he said.
“It’ll be a way for us to be more involved and to see how we can better help as well,” he said.
Blalock said the state wants to place children with relatives as much as possible because it produces better results for the kids.
“Kin tend to take sibling groups, and it’s really important to keep siblings groups together,” he said. “Kin tend to take older youth, and the alternative for older kids is almost always institutions or out-of-state placements. If relatives don’t take them, the situation is dire quickly.”
Roybal, the head of the Con Alma Health Foundation, said a lot of attention is being focused on how to support grandparents currently raising grandchildren, though more work still needs to be done. But she said decision-makers must work harder to address underlying issues, such as poverty and unemployment, if they want to stem the tide.
“If we don’t address those issues, then the likelihood is that it will continue to increase,” she said. “We have to look at the other side of the continuum to deal with underlying systemic issues so we can decrease the trend, because what’s going to happen is that as we age and the problem continues, there are going to be fewer grandparents available to do this role. Think down the road: What is this going to look like?”
Delano, the executive director at Las Cumbres Community Services, said she’s worked with grandparents in their late 80s who were taking care of toddlers as well as teens.
“We have incredible family that’s stepping up, that really wants the best for these children. They deserve all the support that they can possibly get,” she said. “The fact that New Mexico continues to be 50th in the country in overall child well-being, that forces the issue in terms of demanding better from the state. It gives us a lot of hope as well because you can only go up from here.”
Like Roybal, Delano speaks from personal experience.
“I was largely raised by my grandmother,” she said. “She really helped my mom quite a bit. She was a single mom and really struggling, so the fact that my grandmother was able to be there for me for her, it really changed our lives in a lot of ways.”
Maria said she would advise other grandparents raising grandchildren not to get angry with the kids and to “follow through” if they make the decision to raise them.
“Don’t give up because the situation they are in is not their fault,” she said. “If you want them to grow up to be decent individuals and follow a path to a career, they have to grow up happy. So, even when you’re not happy, be happy and then when they go to school, go in the room and cry and get over it. Life goes on.”
Making a life worthwhile
Azzy, a bubbly and talkative fourth grader, is a testament to her great-grandmother’s perseverance. Still, the little girl who loves science and math and playing with L.O.L. Surprise! dolls feels different than other children, who sometimes question her living situation.
“They ask, ‘Why have we never seen your mom?’ ” she said. “I tell them, ‘Because I just don’t know where she is, to be honest.’ Because I don’t know where she is. She could be at home, the casino. She could be walking on the street for all I know.”
While she’s sad she doesn’t live with her mother, whom she sees occasionally, Azzy said she likes living with her great-grandmother, who also periodically provides housing for Azzy’s father. Azzy said she also enjoys participating in Las Cumbres’ grandparents raising grandchildren support program because she interacts with other kids who are like her, including another girl around her age.
“The reason we got into the grandparents meeting is because I felt like nobody else understood because I didn’t think anybody else didn’t have their like mom or dad, and it made me upset,” she said. “But then I went to the grandparents meeting, and there were so, so many people without their moms and dads. That made me really happy.”
Azzy said she feels like she has, for the most part, a normal childhood.
“In some things, I feel like I have a normal childhood,” she said. “In others, I wish I had my mom or my dad because some things I need my mom for,” she said, adding that her great-grandmother takes good care of her nonetheless.
While Dolores Sly said she has given up a lot to raise Azzy, she said she has no regrets.
“Never,” she said. “I saved her life, and she has saved mine. She gives me a reason to get up in the morning.”
Still, Sly said she’s questioned many times whether she is able to care for her great-granddaughter, especially at her age. Sly will be 81 years old by the time Azzy graduates high school.
“I’ve said it several times,” she said, “but there’s nobody else.”
During an interview at Sly’s home earlier this week, Azzy played with her dolls and a Teddy bear she named Brownie.
“I want to buy Brownie a Santa hat,” she said. “A hat would make me happy. Just a hat would make me happy. Get him into the spirit.”
“We could always cut one of these down,” Sly said as she pulled an adult-size, glittery Santa hat from the kitchen table.
“Oh yeah! That would be cute,” Azzy said.
In a matter of minutes, Sly cut the Santa hat with a pair of scissors and sewed it by hand to fit the Teddy bear’s fluffy head.
“It’s cute! Yay!” Azzy said. “I’m so happy.”