More than 80 grandparents and other kinship caregivers gathered Thursday at First Baptist Church to attend a conference designed to help them navigate the difficult responsibility of raising children who are not their own.
Coordinated by several Mid-Missouri social service agencies, the event was designed to provide support and practical information to caregivers who might be struggling to raise a young family for a second time.
Judy Widner knows what the challenges are - she's been facing them for years. In an unusual arrangement, she shares joint custody of her 10-year-old grandson with her daughter.
"My grandson is at our house every other week, and he's there every morning, too, before my daughter goes to work," she explained.
Sometimes it can be a struggle, she said.
But she said Thursday's conference - entitled "Grandparents and Kinship Caregivers Raising Families" - was chock full of useful information. She especially liked the seminar that helped her feel as if she was not alone and stressed how to maintain a healthy balance in life.
"I'm in human resources, but I learned about so many resources that even I wasn't aware of," she added.
Keynote speaker Karen Traylor, a counseling psychologist with Parent- Link, said more than 121,000 children in Missouri live in homes where their grandparent, or another relative, are the heads of household. And 17,000 live in homes where no biological parent is present.
Traylor said the U.S. census started tracking the data in 2000. Although earlier censuses recorded whether or not grandparents lived in the home, they didn't note if the grandparents were the principal caregivers or not. More recent data - collected in 2000 and 2010 - is revealing a clearer picture of American households.
"Now we're moving into more-nuanced research," Traylor explained. "We can look at the parenting in the home. That's where my research is taking me."
Speaking to the conference participants, Traylor describes the challenges grandparents face.
She said sometimes it can be difficult to navigate who is in charge of discipline and decision-making - the biological parent or the grandparent? Other young siblings and cousins don't understand the inequities in how grandma now divides her time and resources. And grandparents can feel guilt at knowing their own biological children are unfit parents.
She also said kids who've lost their parents experience emotions such as depression, anxiety and anger. And grandparents can harbor negative emotions as they realize their retirement years and finances aren't going to turn out as planned.
But Traylor said grandparents and other kinship caregivers bring pluses to the table - such as familiarity and continuity - that foster parents can't.
Some of the other presenters shared tips for navigating the legal system and solving financial issues.
Jessica Harris, a community support specialist for Pathways Behavioral Health Care, talked about ways to de-escalate conflict with kids. She said caregivers can expect to hear outbursts such as "I hate you!" and "You're not my mom!"
"You can either get offended and scold," she said. "Or you can figure out where those emotions come from. Every kid has an idealized version of their relationship with their parents."
Harris suggested it might be better to respond with words of love, such as "I know you miss your mom" and "I want the best for you, and I'm doing the best I can."
She also encouraged listeners to follow through on traditions.
"Kids need those traditions and memories," she added.
Cole County Presiding Judge Patricia Joyce extended her appreciation for the sacrifices many grandparents make when they raise a second family.
"You are doing the yeoman's work raising your grand kids," Joyce said. "You are doing the most incredible thing in the world, and I want to thank you so much. Those kids really are going to be better, because of your guidance."
Participants also won numerous door prizes at Thursday's conference and ate free Chick-fil-A lunches.
Organizer Harry Kennedy was pleased at the turnout, and hopes to see the program grow. Possibly the next event could be held at night or on a Saturday, he said.
He noted the first monthly support group is scheduled to meet at 1 p.m. on May 13 at First Baptist Church.
"This is our initiation ... we're taking baby steps," Kennedy said.