Authors as Published

Tammy L. Henderson, Ph.D., Assistant professor and Michelle L. Stevenson, Ph.D., Assistant professor and Extension gerontology specialist, Department of Human Development; Virginia Tech. Based on a previous publication by Pamela B. Teaster, Ph.D., and Tammy L. Henderson, Ph.D.

Most of us eventually become grandparents. Throughout history, grandparents and other relatives have raised children, but more are caring for them now than ever before. The idealized picture of the two-parent family may not reflect today's families.

From 1980 to 1990 there was a 44 percent increase in the number of children living with their grandparents. Just under 5.5 million, or almost 8 percent of all children are living with their grandparents. Over one-third of them are being raised solely by a grandparent.

The Grandparents

According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, 52 percent of grandparents raising grandchildren (GRG) are below the age of 55, 31 percent are between the ages of 55 and 64, and 17 percent are aged 65 or older. Over two-thirds (69 percent) of GRGs are married, and 62 percent are female.

The Grandchildren

Fifty-one percent of children living in a grandparent's home are younger than the age of 6, 29 percent are between the ages of 6 and 11, and 20 percent are between the ages of 12 and 17. Less than half (43 percent) of all children raised by grandparents live in the south. Five percent of white children live with a grandparent, 17 percent of African-American children live with a grandparent, and 6.5 percent of Hispanic children live with a grandparent.

Reasons Grandparents Rear Grandchildren

  • To provide a home-like experience.
  • To shape grandchildren's personal and cultural identity.
  • To prevent placement in a foster home.
  • To buffer the effects of divorce or single-parenthood.
  • To care for children whose parents are incarcerated or have contracted AIDS or other illnesses.
  • To reduce grandchildren's contact with substance-abusing parents.
  • To reduce financial and emotional overloads of their own children or to help in transitional situations such as when a parent is sent overseas to work.
  • To stem family crises, including physical, psychological, and sexual abuse or neglect of children.

Rewards for grandparents rearing grandchildren

  • Satisfaction and accomplishment (e.g., academic achievement, athletic awards, school plays and activities, summer employment, or religious endeavors).
  • Preservation of family history and values.
  • Maintain contact through visits, telephone calls, family dinners and gatherings, and recreational activities.
  • Resolution of conflicts between parents and their children.
  • Contributions that include childcare, money, household work assistance, and aid in times of crises.
  • Support improved school behavior and social skills.
  • Love and affection.

Challenges for Grandparents

Some grandparents experience health problems due to caregiving demands. The main health risks are depression, insomnia, back and stomach problems, and hypertension.

Social Isolation
Grandparents find they have little time to themselves. Tight schedules mean less time for other family members and friends and to take part in church and community activities.

Some grandparents feel guilt and shame because their children may be incarcerated or drug addicted.

Grandparents may quit their jobs, cut back on hours, or make other financial sacrifices. According to Minkler and Roe, 30 percent of grandparents left jobs to care for their grandchildren. Most women caregivers had lower-income jobs without retirement or other benefits; few had any savings to buffer the effect of lost wages.

Grandparenting in Virginia

Although many of the issues facing GRGs are common across the country, states treat grandparents' rights differently. This section deals with Virginia courts and grandparents who seek adoption, custody, or visitation, each of which has a strict legal definition under the Code of Virginia. Circuit or district courts make court-ordered custody and visitation arrangements after a judge hears all the facts of a case.

Home state, Virginia § 20-146.12. Virginia is the home state of the child, even if the child has not lived in Virginia, but (a) a parent or person acting as a parent continues to live in this in the state, (b) another state does not have authority or has declined authority as prescribed in Virginia § 20-146.18 or § 20-146.19, and (c) the child and the child's parents, or the child and at least one parent or guardian, have a significant connection to the state (i.e., child's care, protection, training, and personal relationships). The state of Virginia may have temporary emergency jurisdiction under Virginia § 20-146.15. Additional information is available at

Legal custody, Virginia § 16.1-228. The legal status created by a court order giving a caretaker the same parental rights and responsibilities as any legal parent, all subject to any residual parental rights and responsibilities or as outlined under Virginia § 20-107.2 (joint custody).

Persons with a legitimate interest, Virginia § 20-124.1. May include, but is not limited to grandparents, stepparents, former stepparents, blood relatives and family members. Individuals who have lost their parental rights do not have a legitimate interest.

Sole custody, Virginia § 20-124.1. Indicates that one person holds responsibility for the care and control of a child and has primary authority to make decisions concerning the child.

Going to Court:
Some Considerations

Burden of Proof
Grandparents seeking visitation or custody must prove that the parents are unfit or that the grandparents' custody serves the best interest of the child. Often, proof refers to physical or sexual abuse allegations, which are difficult to confirm. Courts tend to favor parents' rights to custody and care of their children.

Hearing a Case
Custody cases may be heard in the grandparent's home state if it is the home state of the grandchild, OR if the grandchild has resided in the grandparent's home state within the last six months prior to the beginning of the custody petition.

Custody cases may also be heard in the grandparent's home state if (a) one of the parents lives in that state or (b) if the grandchild is physically present in the state and has been abandoned or is in danger of abuse.

Adoption is permanent and results in the loss of legal ties to biological parents and relatives (i.e., grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles). (Virginia § 63.2-1230) The biological parents or legal guardian may choose the adoptive parents as stated by the juvenile and domestic relations district court. The home state of the birth parent or guardian has court authority for custody matters. (Virginia § 20-146.11)

Custody is not permanent. It continues the legal ties of biological parents and relatives, although the person with custody holds parental rights.

Financial Strain/Court Costs
Caregiving includes emotional and monetary responsibilities. Grandparents also must consider the emotional and financial costs of pursuing a case. The financial strain may be greater for grandparents with fixed incomes or at risk of poverty. Court costs and lawyers' fees will vary with the complexity of the case.


Adoption Assistance
Provides financial assistance for the adoption of children with special needs. Contact: Local Department of Social Services or other agencies.

Birth certificate
Contact: The Division of Vital Records, Virginia Department of Health, P.O. Box 1000, Richmond, VA 23208-1000.

Foster Care Payments
These payments provide financial assistance for children whose legal parent is the state. Contact: Local Department of Social Services.

Medicaid Assistance
Qualifying for Medicaid assistance may involve giving up custody of grandchildren. To find out the most current requirements for eligibility, contact your local Department of Social Services.

Supplementary Security Income
This financial assistance program is based on family income. Contact: Local Social Security Office.

Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) and Food Stamps
Virginia grandparents must have legal custody of their grandchild in order to apply for TANF. Contact: Local Department of Social Services.

Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)
This program provides food assistance and nutritional screening to low-income children up to five years of age. Contact: Local Department of Health.

Social Support
Groups that provide support and information to grandparents and other kin raising grandchildren. Contact: Local Virginia Cooperative Extension office.


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Reviewed by Novella Ruffin, Extension Specialist, Virginia State University

Virginia Cooperative Extension materials are available for public use, reprint, or citation without further permission, provided the use includes credit to the author and to Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech, and Virginia State University.

Issued in furtherance of Cooperative Extension work, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Virginia State University, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture cooperating. Edwin J. Jones, Director, Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg; M. Ray McKinnie, Administrator, 1890 Extension Program, Virginia State University, Petersburg.

Publication Date

May 1, 2009