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Interview with Betty Cornelius, Founder of CanGrands

18 years ago, Betty Cornelius became the custodian of her granddaughter to protect her from her substance-abusing parents. Betty quickly came to the realization that many grandparents find themselves in similar complex situations every day and are in need of guidance. These seniors often face physical or verbal threats from their own children, along with the challenges of raising a grandchild. This is how CanGrands National Kinship Support was born. CanGrands is a national grass-roots organization dedicated to the advocacy and support of grandparents and relatives raising grandchildren.  What started with an ad in the Oshawa newspaper and a rented community hall has evolved into a national association with 25 chapters across the country (3 new chapters are in the startup process) and a yearly intergenerational kinship camp.

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Tell us about the challenges encountered by grandparents raising grandchildren
Betty Cornelius: They are many. Raising grandchildren later in life represents a huge learning curve. People have to learn about  fetal alcohol syndrome and other health issues, which many grandchildren suffer from. They also have to learn to set boundaries with their own children and teach their grandchildren to set the same boundaries with their parents. 

Finding resources to support themselves and their grandchildren is another issue. There is a lack of financial support for grandparents overall. Foster parents get financial help, but often grandparents do not. A small stipend of $250 is available to some in Ontario, but people often don’t know that this money is even available to them. 

Other issues are the lack of respite care and the lack of community support. Taking care of your grandchild and paying for braces, activities, medications, leaves little time or money to go out for dinner with friends. The loss of social interactions happens quite fast and adds to the isolation of the grandparents. The saying goes that “it takes a village to raise a child”, I am wondering what happened to the village.
Another factor that is rarely accounted for is that some of us also have to simultaneously take care of our own parents. As grandparents we are not always financially and emotionally capable, or ready, to take this on and yet we have to and the process can be very difficult. There are laws in place to protect grandparents' rights in parts of the country, but so far, the province of Ontario does not have any in place.

Has the social and health impact of grandparents raising grandchildren (on both sides) been measured?
.: The findings of several researches reveal that children raised by their grandparents are doing better than foster children, and doing as well as children raised in two-parents families. 50% of foster children never get to college, while 85% of grandchildren raised by grandparents finish high school and go to college. My own granddaughter, who suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome, just finished her second year of college. These children become productive members of society, you can’t measure success any better than that.

Dr. Esme Fuller Thomson from the University of Toronto has been researching grandparents raising grandchildren for two decades and has taken part in our annual summer camp. Her research interests include grandparent caregiving; the association between early childhood adversity (parental addictions, childhood maltreatment, parental divorce) and later life physical and mental health; depression and chronic illness; social determinants of disability among older adults, among others.
Dr Fuller Thomson contributed to this interview and stated that “while children raised by their grandparents do usually quite well and flourish in a more stable and loving environment, it is more rarely the case for their grandparents. For seniors having to raise another child or children all over again, the physical and psychological toll can be quite great”. The stress incurred by

  • the circumstances which brought the children into their lives (divorce, child abuse, neglect/abandonment, incarceration, substance abuse, parental death etc.)
  • the custody battle with their own children, sometimes involving threats, verbal or physical violence
  • the unexpected financial burden of raising a child

can “leave many grandparents disproportionately susceptible to depression and with substantial health problems such as heart attacks or diabetes”. The lack of visibility, of financial assistance and of support, can lead to additional isolation and stress. Another documented phenomenon is a higher rate of homelessness amongst kinship families once the grandchildren have been raised.

Can you tell us more about your Kinship Camp?
For 14 years, CanGrands has been running the Kinship Conference and Camp, the first of its kind in Canada (this year for the first time it did not happen, due to lack of funding). A participant called it “the band aid that gets them through the year”. This is an occasion for grandparents and grandchildren to connect with others in similar situations and to build a community. Grandparents get to hear guest speakers, and more importantly, they get to spend time, share stories and information with people who are in the same boat. All participants place a lot of value in that week together. Grandparents meet others who understand the conflicting feelings born out of these situations,  peers who will not place the blame on them.  The camp also helps some “cross the enough bridge”: understand that the situation may not be temporary and that they will need to adapt to it. The camp normalizes the grandchildren’s and the grandparents’ lives and helps them along the healing process. This year we organized a shorter weekend camp instead of the usual week-long camp, we also organized a Christmas camp. Christmas is often a high-risk period for the safety of grandparents and grandchildren. Hosting a Christmas camp is a way to guarantee that these families will be safe and can build their own extended kinship support system.

How do you ensure the dissemination of the information about your organization and services?
B.C.: Cangrands is run out of my home. It often feels like the duty of getting the word out about these issues and to support a growing number of citizens is left up entirely to associations like Cangrands. There are about 600,000 grandparents living in the same household as their grandkids in Canada. 75.000 are sole caregiving grandparents, raising their grandchildren, and I dare say a large number of them is dealing with elder abuse in some way or another, yet few people know about them. This is why building relationships with other organizations like the CNPEA is important to us. We are working on increasing our visibility. Several documentaries have been done about Cangrands, including one by the CBC (entitled "Call me Nana"), and we have been featured in several magazines and news articles.
When it comes to sharing information and resources with other grandparents, we use an email list and a private Facebook Group (for safety reasons). The goal is to create a virtual safe place for grandparents in crisis, where they can get access to relevant information. Support can consist in listening and offering advice, but also in helping them set up a safety plan.

Are you currently working on any promising new projects?

  • Cangrands is looking for funding for its next summer camp, so it can continue hosting this intergenerational, community-building event for grandparents and their grandchildren.
  • I have been working with MP Claude Gravelle for the last two years to develop a bill, the Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act and the Income Tax Act (support for grandparents) which would allow grandparents to take a leave of absence from work when a situation arises.
  • 5 other provinces (BC, AB, SK, QC, NS) have grandparents rights, while Ontario doesn’t. I am currently working with various stakeholders to help shape a bill for Ontario.
  • We are always hoping to network with other organizations across the country. CanGrands has been working with Pro Bono Law Ontario, and developed the Adoption Project for Older Kinship Youth.

You have been working with the National Initiative for the Care of the Elderly. Can you tell us more about your involvement with NICE?
Our original collaboration with NICE led to the creation of two tools for grandparents:

Thanks to NICE, 10,000 hard copies of these documents were distributed to grandparents, as well as lawyers, doctors, and social workers throughout Ontario. The tools are also available online. NICE carried out a new study recently on the financial retirement plans of grandparents raising grandchildren. It has been a 2 year process and is currently being turned into another tool to be published soon.

Useful links:

Contact Betty Cornelius


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