BOSTON, Mass. (SHNS)–Each month, 75-year-old Judy Wolter uses her savings and modest income from the state to support her granddaughter, Sophia, who lives in her care. But Wolter worries how she will afford to send Sophia to college in 10 years, at 85 years old and with savings whittled down.
A bill (H 1257/ S 819) heard by the Joint Committee on Higher Education on Tuesday would provide tuition and fee waivers for Massachusetts children who live with a grandparent or family member other than their parents to attend a public university or college.
“Like many grandparents raising grandchildren, I am single parenting. We sacrifice our freedom, our resources and our time for hobbies and passions, friends, volunteer work, and our other grandchildren. This wasn’t exactly my plan for retirement,” Wolter told the committee.
She has permanent guardianship of Sophia, whose mother struggles with opioid addiction. Wolter described her granddaughter as “full of life” and “very wise for her age” despite hardships she has already endured in her eight years.
“I am grateful to receive 500 and some dollars a month from Massachusetts,” she said. “This allows Sophia to have piano lessons, summer camp and winter skiing with her school program. Still, our clothes are from Salvation Army, and we rarely go on vacation or eat in a restaurant. … I’ll be in my 80s raising a teenager, and I will be 85 when Sophia should be going to college. And when those payments end, I will have meager savings for the rest of my life.”
Through the Department of Children and Families, children in the state’s foster care system have access to free public higher education. Tuition and fee waivers cover the costs of any daytime classes former foster children take with full-time professors, though the program does not cover night classes.
Grandparents testifying before the committee Tuesday said that by taking in their grandchildren when their parents were unfit or unable to care for them, they avoided the children being filed into the foster care system.
According to a UMass Chan report published last year, 31,401 grandparents are raising 30,822 grandchildren in Massachusetts. About one-third of those are raising their grandchildren without a parent present in the household. The report also says the number of grandparent and family caregivers has risen in recent years, in part due to the opioid crisis.
Former Rep. John Lepper said that while he was serving in the Legislature between 1995 and 2008, he was raising two grandchildren.
“They came to us because of my daughter’s drug addiction and alcohol abuse, and so we went to the probate and family court and received guardianship for them. DCF was not involved in this. They were eight months old and two and a half, and they stayed until they were college graduates,” Lepper said.
He quoted from the UMass Chan report, saying that the research showed children placed with grandparents and other relatives have better life outcomes than children put in the custody of the state. State assistance available to DCF foster parents and children is largely unavailable to family members who are raising children, he said.
“Although gaining more recognition, the needs of these families — especially those not involved with DCF — remain largely unaddressed by the health and human services, educational, and legal systems at both the national and state levels,” Lepper read from the report.
Shauna Lee Manning read testimony from her 16-year-old granddaughter, Cheyenne, who was in school during the time of the hearing.
Manning said Cheyenne’s mother had a stroke and is in a nursing home in a vegetative state. Her grandparents, who she calls Papa and Oma, have been raising her since second grade.
“My papa has always said he wants me to be somebody. Both my papa and oma believe in me and my abilities. I want to go to college,” Manning read from Cheyenne’s testimony. “I know I can be somebody and make a difference in the world, and I need to go to college to make that happen.”