In The Impoverished San Luis Valley, Grandparents Fill Absent Parents’ Void

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Photo: Rebecca Casaros and grandmother Bernadette Cisneros
Rebecca Casados, 12, stands with her grandmother Bernadette Cisneros, 52, outside of Sierra Grande Elementary School near Fort Garland, Colo. on Tuesday, May 12, 2015.

Rebecca Casados is 12 years old and she's already been through a lot in her short life. Born to a teen mom who then struggled with drugs, and a dad who's been in and out of jail, she ended up being the one who kept her younger brother Adrian safe -- and alive.

"She was the one to take him out of his crib, feed him and diaper him," said Bernadette Cisneros, Rebecca's grandmother.

Cisneros, 52, and her husband Gene, now have custody of Rebecca and Adrian. They live in the town of Fort Garland on the eastern edge of the San Luis Valley. Rebecca's happier with them.

"I'd rather live with them because they've been there for me my whole life," Rebecca said. "My parents were rarely there. So they're like my parents more than anything."

In the valley, the percentage of grandparents who are caregivers is much higher than the Colorado average. In the six counties that make up the valley, about 60 percent of grandparents living with their grandchildren are primary caregivers. The statewide figure is 40 percent, according to 2013 U.S. Census Bureau data.

"This may be due in part to fewer numbers of day care centers, or ability to afford services given the lower income levels in the valley," according to a comprehensive economic analysis from the San Luis Valley Development Resources Group in Alamosa.

An Exhausting Task

It's tough to keep up with kids at any age. Cisneros does it in her 50s. On a recent spring day, she went to a training session for work out of town, then rushed to get Rebecca and take her to the orthodontist. Finally, she went to Adrian's school for an awards ceremony.

Until recently, she felt like she and her husband had been handling the pressure pretty well. But six months ago, she took in three more grandchildren -- one with autism.

"I'm pretty spent emotionally, physically, financially," Cisneros said. "We're struggling to get through."

She and her husband have jobs, but she says having the kids has hurt their marriage and drained their bank accounts. The hardest part came recently when she went to get custody of the youngest grandkids.

"It's heart-wrenching to have to sit in a courtroom and face your son and have to testify against him and say that he's not a good parent and that we took his kids because it was not safe for them," she said.

Poverty A Big Factor

More than half of kids being raised by grandparents live near or below the poverty line, The Pew Research Center found. Researchers say drug abuse -- methamphetamine and now heroin -- has led to more absentee parents. And in the poor, rural, San Luis Valley, drug abuse is a fact of life.

"You go to the doctor's office and there's grandmas with the grandkids. You go to social services and it's grandmas with grandkids. It's really sad cause that's all you see," said Euclides Gallegos, of Alamosa. She turns 76 this month and is raising three great-granddaughters.

Photo: Great-grandmother Euclides Gallegos
Euclides Gallegos of Alamosa is the primary caretaker of her great-grandchildren.

Gallegos used to live with her bird and her dog in a one-bedroom apartment. But a couple of years ago, her granddaughter -- the girls' mother -- started to drop the kids off with her for long periods of time. Gallegos said her granddaughter was selling food stamps for drugs.

"This younger generation doesn't really want to work," Gallegos said, adding that she worked multiple jobs when raising her kids decades ago. She still works a few days at week at the local library.

The girls just didn't look or seem right, Gallegos said. Their mom "wasn't taking care of them. She wasn't feeding them properly, if at all."

Gallegos doesn't know where her granddaughter is now. The girls' dad has struggled with alcohol but now sees the girls after school twice a week.

For a while, Gallegos and the girls all lived in her small apartment. She scraped by for about six months on her Social Security income of about $850 a month. Then she found help from La Puente, a local non-profit that got her into a two-bedroom house in Alamosa. She now pays a little more than $200 a month in rent and also gets food stamps.

Grandmother Bernadette Cisneros says the financial burden is a big one. This isn't how she pictured living out her golden years with her husband.

"We really haven't had time to ourselves," she said. "Our three kids moved out of our home and shortly thereafter, they started having kids. So we really haven't had much alone time at all."

The current arrangement in her house isn't working, Cisneros says. She can't raise all five kids. It pains her to say it, but -- along with the county -- she's looking for a family who might adopt the three youngest grandkids. She says she'll only do it if she approves of the new family and can continue to be in the kids' lives.

Grandparents caring for their grandkids isn't always a permanent solution to missing parents. Janet Benavente, an agent in family and consumer sciences at Colorado State University Extension, says one of the biggest issues is the grandparents' mortality.

"Children become very concerned about their grandparents. They kind of feel like they need to take care of them. They worry about [grandparents] dying before they grow up," Benavente said. "There are stressers on them they normally wouldn't have."

There are some government programs aimed at grandparent caregivers, Benevente said. But many grandparents are too busy, or proud, to ask for help.

CPR News is exploring why the state has a high child poverty rate, what the impact is on our society, and what can be done about it. We'd like to hear from you. Share your thoughts on this story and ideas below.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Rebecca Casados's name. The current version is correct.