Groton - Nearly 30 years removed from raising her own child, Tammi Rodriguez is reliving the trials, tribulations and joys of motherhood.
The 52-year-old grandmother from Pawcatuck has custody of her 7- and 5-year-old grandsons and cares part-time for her 3-year-old grandson. She is single and works full-time but said it was something that had to be done.
"It's really something I welcomed to get my daughter that extra step, to allow her the time to get where she needs to be," Rodriguez said. "Maybe someday she'll get it right and all three will be with her - but I'm not sure that will happen."
This week, with her grandsons tearing open gifts from Santa and zipping around a conference room at the Mystic Marriott, Rodriguez mingled with a group of grandparents during a Christmas party hosted by Grandparents Raising Grandchildren, a support group run by Groton's Family Support Center.
It's a reminder she's not alone.
Nationally, an estimated 2.7 million children are in "kinship care," raised by their grandparents, other relatives or close family friends, according to "Stepping up for Kids," a study released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation earlier this year. The number increased 18 percent from 2000 to 2010.
Diane Schrage, a counselor who runs the Groton program, said about 50 families are signed up and 20 families stay active with the group, which holds meetings once a month and occasionally welcomes guest speakers. The friendships built at the meetings go beyond the group setting, she said.
"They get a lot of support from each other. They're in the same boat," Schrage said. "The common thread is, they're in a new role in life. It's a person who has raised children of their own, and for whatever reason, they're all of a sudden in a position where their grandchildren are going into foster care. That's what brings them together."
The reasons the children's parents have lost custody run the gamut. Some have substance abuse issues or criminal convictions. Some of the children may have been abused. Some of the parents were simply too young, were single with few resources or were called to military duty.
As of 2010, 104,000 children nationwide were formally placed in kinship care as part of a state-supervised foster care system, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Bill Winterholer of Groton came across the group with his wife, Wanda, several years ago and said it is a place to share ideas. His now 13-year-old grandson, Jason, was taken away from his parents by the state Department of Children and Families when he was 3 months old because of abuse. He and his wife immediately stepped in.
The group is even more important to him now, with the recent the death of his wife, of cancer.
"People come in and don't know where to turn. Many of us have been through it," he said.
Schrage said the arrangement is often best for the child's welfare stability and to provide a safe environment.
The state agrees and has made a push in recent years under DCF Commissioner Joette Katz to get more kids into the care of relatives and out of group settings, said DCF spokesman Gary Kleeblatt.
In Connecticut, there are presently 4,076 children in state custody because of cases of abuse or neglect by caregivers. About 21 percent of those children are now in the home of a relative, licensed by the state to provide foster care. That is a 35 percent increase since January 2011, when Katz took over, Kleeblatt said.
In some cases, work is being done to reunify the children with their parents. Some relatives wind up adopting the children and caring for them permanently.
As much as care by a relative is easier for the child, Schrage said it can be a struggle for grandparents in a position where they are retired or getting ready to retire and raising children all over again.
"Their peers are not doing that. It puts them back into the role of a parent. That's an isolating role," Schrage said. "That's an obligation. They're bringing these children to school, to doctor's appointments and everything else."
In addition, they don't get to play what is typically the role of the grandparent, who gets to spoil their children's kids, Schrage said. They are now the caregiver, which means they're also the disciplinarian.
The new role also becomes a financial struggle, as the Annie E. Casey study shows that kinship caregivers receive a small portion of the estimated $990 a month is costs to raise a child.
In Connecticut, financial assistance is available for guardians of grandchildren involved in the child welfare system and victims of child abuse or neglect. But Schrage said many in the program find it a struggle to get assistance, since they take kids in before they go into foster care and are not involved in the state program.
Struggles or not, Rodriguez said the rewards of raising her grandchildren, with their "hugs and kisses and unconditional love," is worth it.