A New Back-to-School Challenge: Making Sure Grandma Can Enroll Grandchildren

It's a sunny Saturday afternoon just weeks before the first day of school, and Barb Pasela has shown up at a former elementary school in Parma.

The building is being used for what's called a kinship care workshop, and volunteer law students are manning the registration table for a day-long event. Attorneys are milling around, waiting for grandparents just like Pasela to walk in the door.

The 55-year-old grandmother has been taking care of two grandchildren for years. A four-year-old granddaughter moved in at nine months old. And a 17-year-old granddaughter began living with her off-and-on this summer. It's a situation that is both rewarding -because she loves caring for her grandkids - - but also trying.

"I don't have a lot of extra people to try to help out with anything," Pasela says.

So when it comes to enrolling the kids in school, Ohio's requirement for a very specific piece of paper to be filled out and notarized can seem daunting.

Yvonne Billingsley, who oversees the children and families services unit in the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's office, says the document is called a caretaker authorization affidavit.

"It's a difficult situation when you have to navigate a court system to do legal filings, hire an attorney and try to understand what to do," Billingsley says.

Schools need the form to verify that a child really is being cared for by the person who lives in their district. And as a new school year begins across the country, administrators are seeing more kids who need the paperwork.

Census data shows that about 4 percent of American children are being raised by their grandparents or other relatives. In Ohio, about 90,000 children are living in homes run by grandparents.

Streamlining the process is more important now than ever as the number of kids in the care of relatives continue to rise, explains Ana Beltran.

Nationwide, it's up about 18 percent over the last decade. The increase is probably due, and I say probably because we don't know definitively, but probably due to the economy. To increased rates of incarceration. Many of these parents are abusing substances."

Beltran is an attorney with a national advocacy group called Generations United. Beltran says that Ohio's affidavit grants both school and medical consent for the grandparents.

Beltran is putting the finishing touches on a report on the differences between educational consent laws in different states. In some states, she says, grandparents end up obtaining legal custody or guardianship to meet a school district's residency requirements.

Patrick Haggerty, an attorney with Frantz Ward who volunteered at the Saturday workshop, says he does a fair number of custody and guardianship papers. It's time consuming and even the one affidavit required in Ohio can be overwhelming for families who are often in crisis situations.

Haggerty says he sees too many children who miss school because they don't have the notarized affidavit. He stayed until the last minutes of the workshop, pacing the halls and hoping more grandparents would show up. Only a handful stopped in.

"Other kids will begin learning and these kids may be 30 days behind if not for something like we're trying to do today," Haggerty says.

Billingsley, the county prosecutor who organized the workshop, says some kids won't just miss school. They will be at home in a compromised environment.

"Many parents might send them to another relative or keep them at home in some less than desirable conditions temporarily - they are trying to manage. Some kids end up being home schooled but maybe not with the proper curriculum which also has to be approved by the school district in which they live," Billingsley says.

Despite the low turnout, organizers say they are not discouraged. Within days of the workshop, Billingsley announced that two more sessions are scheduled during key enrollment times for the next school year. They are now planning their marketing efforts.

For grandmother Barb Pasela the two hours spent at the workshop were well worth her time.

"This has made it so much easier. All the paperwork, all the legal advise you want, everything's done in one location… wham, bam, thank you," Pasela says.

That kind of one-stop shopping is the kind of ease that national experts like Beltran say should be available everywhere and all of the time.

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