This past summer, the topic of grandparents parenting their grandchildren was front and centre at the Jewish Child and Family Services Winnipeg (JFCS) annual general meeting. The Independent spoke recently with a couple of the participants in the June event.
Corinne Ackerman, 73, was joined by her husband, Harvey, 75, at the AGM. The couple has two grown children – a son who lives and works in Auckland, New Zealand, and a daughter who lives in Winnipeg. Seven years ago, their daughter’s family began experiencing difficulties, to the point that Manitoba Child and Family Services (CFS) became involved.
“Harvey and I were aware there were problems in their home, but we didn’t know how bad,” Corinne told the Independent. “We got a phone call from our daughter, saying that CFS was coming to the school to apprehend their three boys. And, of course, when I heard that, I just was absolutely stunned…. I grabbed my car, went to the school and met the social worker. I said, ‘You’re not taking them. I’m their grandmother and they are coming with me.’”
Everyone ended up at CFS, which then evaluated the possibility of the Ackermans taking charge of their grandsons. “They came to our apartment. They checked it,” said Corinne.
By that evening, all three boys were with their grandparents in their apartment. However, said Corinne, “We had them here with us for about 10 to 12 weeks. They [CFS] wouldn’t let us keep them. You can’t have three children in a two-bedroom apartment.
“At that point, friends of mine … and even the principal at the kids’ school called me … and said to call JCFS. It took a lot for me to do that. You become so embarrassed. Harvey and I were just mortified.
“I did, and God bless Emily Shane [who was then at the helm of JCFS]. She sent workers and the process began. They found a foster home for the three boys, but it very quickly deteriorated. It was just awful.”
Ian, now 14, the youngest, was having the most trouble. He also needed some major dental work. All of those involved decided it would be best if Ian went back to live with his grandparents. Ian’s brothers are now 18 and 20.
“I don’t even remember how it all happened, but the agreement was, the boys were going to another foster home and Ian would stay with us,” said Corinne. “And he’s been with us now since he was 7 years old.”
The Ackermans have made a point of assuring Ian that his parents and brothers love him.
“I think that he knows that he’s loved and that we still love his mom, dad and brothers,” said Corinne. “Ian would like to be home with his mom and dad if it was possible. But, I think he’s pretty happy here. And, for as long as he needs us to be here, we are going to try to take care of him.”
While there were some hurt feelings within the family when all of this happened, of course, everyone has made amends for Ian’s sake. They all speak regularly, and Ian visits his mom and dad regularly.
When asked about the difference between raising your own kids versus raising your grandchildren, Corinne said, “Well, when you raise your grandchildren, you get a better appreciation for the love you have. I love my daughter, I love my son, I love my in-laws, but you love your grandchildren on a different level, and we just adore Ian. At times, he’s very difficult, but at times, he’s an absolute blessing.”
The Ackermans have had to realign their lives in order to parent their grandson. It was a drastic change and they depend on JCFS for respite.
“We are not people who go out all the time, but it does cut down on the freedom to do so,” said Corinne. “But, we’re OK with that. Ian is important enough to us that it’s worth it.
“Ian has some challenges in school and that makes it quite difficult for any parent. We’ve done our best to get him the help he needs, and I can say that JCFS has been fabulous. Ian had a reading clinician, as he had a little speech impediment, and now it’s gone. JCFS has been wonderful with whatever Ian has needed.
“There are issues when a child is taken from their parents, and issues before that, and they’ve been very helpful throughout,” she continued. “As far as Harvey and I, when I really have it up to my head … I’ll give the social worker a call and she’s always there to help and give advice.
“Ian is the most invaluable young man because, whatever we do for him, he does back for us tenfold. He’s a wonderful kid. A million foster homes are wonderful, but family is family and there’s a difference.”
The other panelist at the JCFS AGM was Karla Berksen, 73, who also took in her two grandchildren seven years ago. Berksen was awarded custody because her daughter was unwell and her husband could not care for the kids.
Berksen and her partner of many years, Arthur Chipman, took in the children when Paige was 4 and Jacob was 8. At the time, Berksen was a newly retired financial planner and was spending part of her winters in Mexico.
“My daughter was still alive when I got the kids,” Berksen told the Independent. “She wasn’t a very well person, so we spent a lot of time with her. When they came to me, they were just dropped off. Arthur’s been quite amazing, because people my age don’t think this is something they want to do for their retirement. But, this is what we’re doing, although Arthur is still working.”
Both children attended and graduated from Brock Corydon School’s Hebrew immersion program. “Jacob had his bar mitzvah two years ago and Paige will have her bat mitzvah in March,” said Berksen.
“I feel very grateful to have the kids. It makes me a little tired sometimes. But, as I said at the JCFS AGM, I’ve only had two anxieties in my whole life. One was nine months after I stopped smoking – I had an anxiety attack realizing I wasn’t going to have a cigarette again. The other one happened a couple years after I got the kids, and I realized that I’m going to have teenagers again. That’s my biggest fear – going through the teen years again. You can only build them up, but they have to take charge and you never know what will happen.”
Berksen said both of her grandchildren are very talented. Her grandson is a gifted musician who is self-taught on the saxophone, drums, guitar and piano, with plans to one day become a studio musician and music teacher; he also enjoys playing hockey. Berksen’s granddaughter loves the arts and curling. Both kids spend part of their summers at Camp Massad.
Although Berksen hopes one day to again spend time in Mexico, her current priority is to raise her grandchildren up through their university studies. “I don’t see it as my life being on hold,” said Berksen. “This is it. This is my life and I enjoy it for the most part. I enjoy watching these two kids grow up. They keep me alive and busy.”
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.