TV legend Carol Burnett was granted temporary guardianship of her 14-year-old grandson this week, as her daughter reportedly struggles with a longtime drug addiction and a recent reported suicide attempt.
But for 87-year-old Burnett, this means that, instead of relaxing and enjoying her sunset years, she will become responsible for raising a teenager, People reported. She’ll have a full-time role in feeding him, buying him clothes, looking after his emotional and physical well-being and probably supervising his distance learning if his school is closed due to COVID-19.
But as a grandparent raising a grandchild, Burnett is not alone. She and her husband Brian Miller belong to a growing demographic in America that is the result of “many tragedies,” the Atlantic reported.
The proportion of children living in grandparents has doubled in the U.S. since 1970, and the number of grandparents raising grandchildren nationally rose to about 2.9 million in 2015, a 6 percent increase from 10 years earlier, the Pew Charitable Trusts reported.
Both the Atlantic and PBS said the reasons children end up in the care of grandparents can include temporary circumstances, such as a parent’s military deployment or joblessness. Other times grandparents have to take over because of a parent’s mental illness, incarceration or death.
Experts cited by the Atlantic and PBS also said the opioid epidemic was a factor in the increasing number of “grandfamilies.” The Atlantic reported on Barb, a 68-year-old Bucks County, Pennsylvania woman who began raising her 2-year-old granddaughter when her son fell into heavy opioid use and stopped taking care of her; the girl’s mother also stopped being involved.
“No one expects to spend their retirement raising a child,” said Barb, a former school teacher, who is taking care of the girl with her 69-year-old husband. “It changes everything. Your life is turned upside down.”
The documents Carol Burnett filed in support of guardianship also show the extent to which her family’s lives have been turned upside down by daughter Erin Hamilton’s drug problems.
“Throughout her adult life, and since Dylan’s birth, Erin has suffered from severe substance abuse and addiction issues,” Burnett said in her court filing, according to People. Erin Hamilton, 52, and a singer, has been institutionalized eight times, and attempted suicide in July, the court records show.
The boy’s father, Kurt West, also is reportedly unable to care for Dylan because he recently checked himself into rehab, Burnett explained in the filing.
“Dylan’s living environment has long been unstable, unpredictable and unhealthy for a child,” Burnett said. She also revealed that the local Department of Children and Family Services had investigated his living situation, resulting in juvenile dependency proceedings in 2018 and 2019.
But with Burnett seeking to provide a stable, healthy home for her grandson, she is also seeing history repeat her own childhood.
Burnett told NPR in 2013 that she was primarily raised by her grandmother, Mabel White, as her mother and father battled alcoholism. She said her parents left her with her grandmother in Texas, as they moved to Hollywood “to strike it big.” After her parents divorced, Burnett and her grandmother headed west to be with her mother, but Burnett said she stayed in her grandmother’s care even though her mother lived in the same apartment building.
Burnett’s childhood story shows that there is nothing new in the arrangement, with The Atlantic saying that Maya Angelou and two former presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, also spent at least part of their childhoods in the care of grandparents.
Burnett has also lived with the fact that addiction runs in her family. Carrie Hamilton, the oldest of her three daughters, started abusing drugs as a teenager. By this time, Burnett was a TV and film star, notably through her iconic, hour-long variety show, “The Carol Burnett Show,” which ran from from 1967 to 1978. Carrie ultimately got sober, and she and Burnett enjoyed a close bond, but Carrie died in 2002 at age 38 from complications related to lung cancer.
Given her Hollywood success, wealth and experience with family member’s addictions, Burnett is probably better prepared than many other grandparents to assume full-time care duties of a minor child. The Atlantic reported that there is a disproportionately high rate of poverty among grandparents raising grandchildren, and more than 40 percent say they can’t meet the economic and social-service needs of their grandchildren and of themselves.
Raising grandchildren also can take a toll on grandparents’ mental and physical health, the Atlantic reported. Grandparents in this situation have higher-than-normal rates of depression, sleeplessness, emotional problems, and chronic health problems.
Barb, the grandmother the Atlantic interviewed, said she was dealing with rheumatoid arthritis and hoped she could stay healthy enough to be there for her granddaughter in the coming years. She also admitted, “I’m not anxious to do the teenage years again.”
Still, Barb also talked about the rewards — the joy of being with her granddaughter. Other grandparents have reported having a renewed sense of purpose, the Atlantic said. Barb added that, with her age and life experience, she doesn’t “stress the small stuff,” such as grades. Instead, she focuses on giving her granddaughter “the love, stability and skills to fight her own battles.”
Some of the life skills that Burnett is likely to pass on to her grandson come from Alateen and Al-Anon, self-help support groups designed for young people and families, respectively, whose lives have been affected by someone else’s drinking or drug use.
Burnett has talked in interviews about being a strong advocate for both programs. In an interview with Marlo Thomas in 2011, she said she wants young people to not blame themselves if their parents drink or use drugs.
“What you learn to do, God willing, is to detach — with love,” Burnett said. “They help you realize you can’t cure them and you didn’t cause it.”
Dan Carter was a reporter for nomad Labs, before becoming the lead editor. Dan has over forty bylines and has reported on countless stories concerning all things related to tech and science. Dan studied at CSUF.