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Groton - Carol Caswell used to think it was her fault that she ended up raising her daughter's children.
"I thought I'd done something wrong," said the 57-year-old Caswell, who along with her husband, David, is raising Katrina, 12, Mackenzie, 10, and Kaylee, who turns 2 the day after Christmas.
So Caswell joined the Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Support Group in Groton, which began nine years ago and has served more than 40 families. The group, which has drawn grandparents from communities including Norwich, Waterford, New London, Old Lyme, Madison and Old Saybrook, held its annual Christmas party Thursday night.
"I needed to talk to somebody, and it was the best thing I ever did," she said about joining the group.
After she joined, Caswell said, "I didn't feel so alone."
More than 18,000 children in Connecticut live in homes where grandparents head the household and are responsible for them, according to data compiled by six groups including AARP. Of the total, more than 7,000 children have no parent present in the home.
Diane Schrage, counselor at Groton Human Services who runs the monthly support group, said there can be harsh and unfair judgment directed at older adults raising grandchildren.
"Whether it was a substance abuse issue or a mental health issue or the parent passed away, there's almost a stigma associated with it, like, 'What did you do to have your grandchild?' Schrage said. "These people are good parents or they wouldn't have them."
Schrage said some organizations have also changed the name "Grandparents Support Group" to "Grandparents Resource Group," to make it more palatable.
"Support doesn't mean you can't do it," she said. "It means you don't have to do it alone."
The Groton group meets from 6:30 to 8 p.m. on the first Thursday of the month in the Human Services office.
Schrage believes part of the group's success is due to offering child care during meetings. She said children also have the chance to meet others who are in their situation.
"They're all being raised by their grandparents, so it's normal," she said. "Who doesn't want to be normal?"
Grandparents said the group allows them to speak freely without fear of judgment.
Lee Faustino, who is retired from the U.S. Navy and disabled, and his wife, Bertha, are raising their now-12-year-old granddaughter.
The child's mother, Faustino's daughter-in-law, was killed in a car accident years ago. Faustino's son was unable to care for his daughter after that.
Sometimes, Faustino said he feels robbed of his retirement, even though he wants to care for his family. He wishes he could have "an immortal life," he said.
"The young ones, they're so fast for me. I cannot catch them. I cannot run," he said Thursday.
Sharon Salen, 65, and her husband, David Salen, 67, are raising their 8-year-old grandson, Evan.
They've had him since he was 11 months old. "He's just a love," Sharon Salen said.
David Salen is in a wheelchair, though he can walk a few steps. He stays home with Evan. The boy sometimes pushes him in his chair.
"Listen, I'm spoiled rotten," David Salen said.
Sharon Salen works full-time as a nurse at Pendleton Health and Rehabilitation Center in Mystic.
"I don't know how we keep up," she said. "We just do."
The biggest challenge is school work. A teacher wrote Salen recently that if she had a question about the computer, Evan could show her.
Caswell has three grown children.
Her two sons have children of their own and are doing well. Her daughter was the youngest, she said.
Caswell said she could never keep her in school, even as a teenager. She suffered from mental illness and turned to drugs. Caswell has had her daughter's oldest two children for about five years.
The little one, Kaylee, has lived with her grandparents since she was 4 months old. Despite the difficulty with her daughter, the grandchildren have brought Caswell joy.
"I can't wait to get up in the morning," she said. "She wakes up and says, 'I love you, grandma.'"