By Lori Duffy
Nov. 18, 1996
Iris and Elihu Cohen dream of visiting Israel in their retirement. They have enough money. Their health is good at 67 and 70 years old.
Still, they doubt they will make the trip any time soon. They are too busy packing school lunches, learning the Macarena and shuttling an 8-year-old bundle of energy back and forth to gymnastics classes.
While most of their peers drink in the rewards of retirement, the Cohens of North Syracuse are parenting again. Their days are devoted to their granddaughter, Nicole Poulin, who has lived with them since her first birthday.
Their situation does not surprise family experts in Onondaga County. The Cohens are part of a growing demographic in the United States: grandparents who are raising their children’s kids.
Experts say crack cocaine, alcoholism, mental illness and a generation that focuses too much on its own needs at the expense of its children contribute to that growth.
The county Department of Social Services placed 184 children with their grandparents in 1995. That figure includes only children who were taken from their homes because they were abused or neglected.
Local experts say they can only guess at the true figures because so many grandparents, like the Cohens, reach informal custody agreements with their children or battle for custody in Family Court.
The U.S. Census Bureau provides no clearer picture. The 1990 census lumps all multi-generational households into one category. That means families with dependent grandparents are grouped with families headed by grandparents.
James Goldstein, executive director of Syracuse Jewish Family Service and a private family/marital therapist, said he sees the evidence in his clientele. More and more of his clients are like the Cohens, grandparents who are raising their grandchildren.
“I’ve had many a conversation with grandparents where I’ve looked them right in the eye and said, `You’re their only hope,”‘ Goldstein said. “It’s a real challenge. I don’t envy them. On the other hand, they are fulfilling a critical need.”
The impact of the return to parenthood is three-dimensional, Goldstein said. It changes their lives emotionally, socially and financially. But Goldstein said most grandparents find the rewards exceed all costs. The Cohens agree.
“She goes to her mother’s for two days and by Sunday, I miss her,” Iris Cohen said. “She gives us a purpose for living.”
For the Cohens, the return to parenthood wasn’t entirely unexpected. Their 34-year-old son Jay has problems that prevent him from being a father to Nicole. The Cohens declined to elaborate for this story.
Nicole’s mother has full custody of the child. She had trouble finding day care for her daughter while she worked so Nicole began living with her grandparents four days a week when she was a year old.
The Cohens’ house became Nicole’s home about a year later when her mother had another baby. Nicole attends Syracuse Hebrew Day School and visits her mother in Auburn most weekends.
Two lawyers have advised the Cohens not to seek legal custody of Nicole unless it’s absolutely necessary, Elihu Cohen said.
“It would cost money. There would be a big fight,” he said. “It would alienate her (Nicole).”
Elihu Cohen was semi-retired when Nicole came into their lives. He still worked as a consultant for General Electric, so most of the parenting fell to his wife. Iris Cohen was a social worker. A hip injury forced her to retire in 1986.
“For me it was like suddenly going back to work,” Iris Cohen said. “That was my job. I think it changed less for my husband at the time, but he gradually became more supportive. He saw it at first as a new set of demands.”
“I was pretty skeptical about it,” her husband answered with a nod. “I was always interested, but it took me a while to take an active role.”
With new responsibilities, Iris Cohen had to scale back on the gardening she loves so much. She has grown orchids for 24 years and had just become interested in bonsai plants.
Now her days begin with Nicole. Nicole is awake by 6:15 a.m. and must catch the school bus by 7:15 a.m. Elihu Cohen packs her lunch while his wife gets her dressed and fed.
Twice a week, Iris Cohen picks Nicole up after school and drives her to Liverpool for language therapy. She suffers from a mild disability that makes learning difficult. The Cohens buy her computer programs that they hope will help her keep up with her peers.
“I don’t mind doing it because I think my two boys would have benefited from those things,” Iris Cohen said. “But we were too busy then. We were working.”
Once a week, Nicole goes to gymnastics classes at the Jewish Family Center after school and Iris Cohen picks her up from there. She takes the school bus home the rest of the week. She’s full of energy and excitement when she gets home.
“I try to get her to do her homework because she’s too tired after dinner,” Iris Cohen said.
The Cohens drive Nicole to her mother’s home in Auburn Fridays after school and pick her up again on Sundays.
That leaves them little time to socialize. Most of Iris Cohens’ friends are the people in her bonsai and orchid groups. “I feel I have more in common with the younger generation than I do with our generation,” she said.
But Iris Cohen did find a group of about 35 people she has plenty in common with. They are the members of a support group sponsored by Jewish Family Service for grandparents who become parents again. She met Carolyn Minney during the monthly meetings in North Syracuse.
Carolyn and Hunter Minney of Baldwinsville won custody of their 3-year-old grandson, Perry Wolfgang Ennis, in Family Court in August. Their 23-year-old daughter, Danielle, voluntarily gave them custody, but they had to fight his father.
“You’re in legal limbo when you don’t have custody,” Carolyn Minney said. “You do all the loving. You do all the nurturing.”
Perry has lived with the Minney’s since birth. Danielle stayed with them until the boy was 3 months old. She reluctantly agreed to leave Perry behind when she left. She now realizes she needed time to mature.
“At first, I was very uncomfortable and resentful about it,” Danielle Minney said as Perry played “head soccer” by diving into the sofa. But “he’s very well adjusted. It’s been great for me because I’m so young and it’s taken a while for me to get my priorities straight.”
Danielle takes her son on outings at least once a week. His father recently started visiting for 90 minutes a week. His father suffers from a chemical imbalance that makes parenting difficult, Carolyn Minney said.
The Minneys said they realized they had to pursue custody last spring when Perry’s father returned to his life after a year’s hiatus. He once took Perry overnight without their permission.
Without custody, the Minneys had no rights. Speaking generally, Family Court Judge Leonard Bersani said custody cases involving mentally ill parents are the most disheartening cases he must decide. Bersani has sat on the bench for 16 years.
“Those are sad,” Bersani said. “In those cases, it’s not really for the most part their fault whereas in other cases they have in a way chosen to become an addict.”
Perry’s parents can each try to regain custody through Family Court at anytime unless the courts terminate their parental rights. If that happens, the Minneys can adopt Perry.
“I love that little critter to death,” said Hunter Minney, 60. “When you’re older, it’s like having a second family. You have more patience.”
The Minneys have raised four children between them. Danielle was the last to leave the house five years ago at age 18. Carolyn, 48, doesn’t work outside their home. Hunter is home by 3 p.m. each day.
After Danielle left, the Minneys enjoyed the spontaneity that came with their new freedom. On summer days, they hopped on their motorcycle and cruised to “the stands” on the Oswego shore of Lake Ontario for dinner. Other nights they ordered pizza.
Hunter Minney planned to retire from United Refrigeration at age 62. “That’s not going to happen now,” he said. But “there are a lot of rewards. People look at it like being tied down, but they don’t know what they are missing.”
The Minneys are supposed to start receiving $300 a month from Perry’s father. The money comes from his disability checks. Perry’s other grandparents also help support him, the Minneys said. They buy Perry clothes and sometimes take him overnight to give the Minneys a break.
“I think in that sense we’ve been very lucky,” Hunter Minney said. “I don’t think financially it’s been any burden.”
Like the Minneys, the Cohens get some financial help. Social Services gives them $385 a month toward Nicole’s care. Still, they want to give Nicole all that they can.
That means cutting a few corners and putting some household projects on hold. Nicole has a half scholarship to Hebrew Day School and a half scholarship to summer day camp. The Cohens are financially comfortable, but not as secure as they had figured they would be.
“If we had more money, everything else would fall into place,” Iris Cohen said.
The Cohens worry more about their ages and their health than they do about money. They have no young relatives with whom they would trust with Nicole. Her mother can’t give her all she needs, they said.
“I really don’t know who to talk to. We just have to pray that the Lord gives us the strength until she grows up,” Iris Cohen said. Alice Green Alice Green, of Syracuse, another grandmother turned parent, can relate to the Cohens’ concerns even though she is younger at 50 years old. Green had cancer five years ago. It recently returned. The cancer has spread through much of her body and, so far, she has refused chemotherapy. She doesn’t want the drug’s side effects to keep her from her 6-year-old granddaughter, Allishia DelaCruz. Green and her boyfriend of seven years, Mike Tumolo, are seeking joint custody of Allishia. Tumolo, 37, plans to raise Allishia if anything happens to Green, he said.
They hope Green’s daughter, Theresa Sherard, will agree to the arrangement. At 24 years old, Sherard is a single mother with three children younger than Allishia to raise. Sherard asked her mother to take guardianship of Allishia last year.
The problem is Allishia’s father. He must also agree to waive custody, but he is in the Dominican Republic and has no plans to return, Green said. He is wanted in Onondaga County on felony drug charges.
A Family Court judge recently persuaded a lawyer to handle their case free of charge, said Green, who is unable to work.
Tumolo is a chef at LeMoyne College. “If we had a big house and lots of money, I’d take all my grandchildren,” Green said. “I love them all the same, but Allishia’s my heart. She’s special.”
Green sees Allishia as a second chance at parenthood. Raised in foster families and orphanages, Green said she had no idea how to rear children when she had Theresa and Jeffrey, now 20.
Green was single and worked two to three jobs to support them. Jeffrey was unable to handle his emotions when he learned she had cancer in 1991, she said. He turned to crime and is now in state prison.
Theresa Sherard was 17 when she had Allishia. Allishia is highly intelligent, active and a handful, Green said. A psychiatrist diagnosed her with attention deficit disorder, but her school counselors believe other problems distract her.
She is emotionally troubled, they said. She also gets bored with her school work and needs greater challenges. The counselors said Green could help, so she did.
Allishia’s behavior has improved since she and her grandmother started attending therapy sessions at St. Joseph’s Hospital. Green also took parenting classes. She volunteers at Allishia’s school and helps her with her homework.
Green said she disciplines Allishia differently from her own children and has had to teach Sherard to do the same when Allishia visits. “Time outs” take the place of spankings, she said.
“She’s a smart kid,” Tumolo said. “She knows what she wants. Living with us gives her a chance to advance her mind.”
Feelings of rejection
The Cohens also took their granddaughter to therapy at St. Joseph’s. Goldstein said that’s not uncommon. Grandchildren come with a whole new set of emotional problems. They can’t help feeling abandoned by their parents, he said.
“It’s a tremendous blow to the children. No matter how stable the relationship with the grandparents is they are going to wonder, where’s my mom? Where’s my dad?” Goldstein said.
Iris Cohen said Nicole sometimes fantasizes about living with her parents. She tells Nicole that even President Clinton lived with his grandparents for a while and that the fictional characters Tom Sawyer and Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz” lived with their aunts.
“It doesn’t impress her,” she said. Goldstein and Diane Erne, deputy commissioner of Social Services in Onondaga County, said not all grandparents are willing to take in their grandchildren. Some say they did their share by raising their own children.
In cases involving victims of abuse or neglect, some grandparents are considered unfit because they abused their own children, Erne said. In other cases, the parents won’t let social services place their children with grandparents because of family feuds, Erne said.
The Cohens said they never thought twice about taking in Nicole and that if they do go to Israel, they hope to take Nicole with them. “To me, the choice was obvious,” Iris Cohen said. “You do what you have to do.”