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When grandparenting is an unfair burden

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WA Greens Senator Rachel Siewert has asked the Federal Government to support grandparents raising grandchildren (Image via commons.wikimedia.org)

A growing number of grandparents care full time for their grandchildren in Australia, without receiving the financial support they need, writes Lisa Ikin.

WHEN YOU HOLD your grandchild for the first time it all comes rushing back — the tiny hands, the downy head and the rolls of baby flesh. It takes you right back to being a parent. 

A growing number of grandparents don't get to hand their grandchildren straight back to their parents. They are left holding the baby for the rest of their lives. Drug abuse and mental health issues are a major contributing factor.

Sue Erben and Vievian Lawrence are grandparents. They care full time for their grandchildren without receiving the financial support they need. Informal kinship or grandparent carers do not have formal custody of their grandchildren. This means they don’t have a state or territory Children’s Court, Youth Court or Magistrates' Court order in place.  

These ageing carers are not eligible for the same allowances that formal carers receive. Along with tens of thousands of people in the same situation, they are demanding change.   

Sue Erben, 53 of Victoria, has been lobbying for change through her Facebook group,  Kinship carers Australia. The group, formed by Sue in 2017, has about 2,500 followers. At 53, Sue refers to herself as “a young spring chicken” compared to some carers in the group — most members are over 60. However, some are in their 80s and care for up to five grandchildren. 

Some of the grandparent carers marched on Canberra in 2018.

There is a lot of conjecture about who takes responsibility for kinship carers, Sue tells Independent Australia:

“If you approach state government, they say it’s a federal matter and federal politicians will say it’s a state matter. Well, it has to be someone!”

Seven years ago, Sue’s daughter suffered from postnatal depression and self-medicated with illicit drugs. She could not care for her child. A newborn baby to care for meant Sue and her husband had to move to a larger house and access their superannuation.  

When her granddaughter was 12 months old, Sue Erben reached out to the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) in Victoria. However, once DHHS saw that Sue's granddaughter was safe, the department closed her case and Sue was not eligible for an allowance.

Sue says:

“It’s not all that different today, you might find one or two services around the states that will help informal carers, but not a lot."

And whether the kids are in a formal or informal arrangement, Sue maintains, it makes no difference because:

“You still have to provide love, support and shelter.”

At 59, Vievian Lawrence and husband Ian relocated from New South Wales to Queensland to care for their newborn grandson. Their grandson’s four siblings had been exposed to drug abuse and physical violence prior to being placed with family members. 

Vievian tells IA that she and her husband didn’t want their grandson to be placed in foster care:

“I don’t believe they [grandchildren] should go through the court system — they are blood!”

Ian is an interstate truck driver and Vievian had plans to travel with him in his truck.

Vievian admits to feeling angry that she had to care for a newborn:

“I was really pissed off at her [daughter] that she took that [travel] away from me, but now in hindsight, I wouldn’t have changed it for the world.”

All carers, formal and informal, are eligible for the Commonwealth's Family Tax Benefit and up to 100 hours of subsidised childcare. By way of comparison, formal carers also receive state or territory government allowances with additional subsidies for education, special needs and remote allowances. There are variances in payment types and allowances across the country.

Psychologist and academic Dr Meredith Kiraly has over 30 years specialising in child and family welfare, with expertise in kinship care.

Dr Kiraly told Independent Australia that she has spent time studying up-to-date census data. Her proxy figures estimate there are 60,000 kinship care households in Australia and that 80 to 90 per cent of all kinship care is informal. Of that number, there are an estimated 24,000 informal grandparent households. Dr Kiraly explained that there are no official numbers "as the census does not yet have a suitable question about family constellations and relationships". 

Dr Kiraly believes Australia should look to New Zealand, where parity was established in 2009. (All formal and informal kinship and foster carers, who meet the criteria, receive an equivalent allowance to the foster carer allowance.)

Senator Rachel Siewert of the Australian Greens (WA) is part of Parliamentary Friends of Grandparent Carers. In July 2019, she delivered a speech to the Senate calling for change. 

Senator Siewert asked the Morrison Government to fix the "two-tiered system” so all grandparents raising grandchildren can access financial assistance and essential services.

Senator Siewert also said

“This is not just a state issue. Please, Commonwealth Government, don't just fob it off to the states.”

Dr Kiraly believes informal carers have a hard battle ahead due to state and territory divides and the added pressure COVID-19 has put on budgets.

As we recognise National Grandparents Day this weekend, let's spare a thought for Sue and Vievian and the tens of thousands of other grandparent and kinship carers marginalised by this inequity.

Lisa Ikin is a freelance writer from Western Australia. She is a full-time primary school teacher, part-time writer and amateur photographer. You can follow Lisa on Twitter @lisabenjessica.

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