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Building trust is tough, but advocacy group opens door for series on ‘grandfamilies’

Building trust is tough, but advocacy group opens door for series on ‘grandfamilies’

Throughout the pandemic, heartbreaking images of grandparents waving to their grandchildren from the protection of their homes or hugging them through plastic barriers have flooded social media feeds. 

Though the physical buffer of “staying home” has been necessary to stop the spread of COVID-19, it has also socially isolated many older adults. As reporters covering the pandemic’s impact on grandparents raising kin for the Center for Health Journalism’s 2020 National Fellowship, this emotional toll was not only an essential element to our story; it was also a significant obstacle in completing our project.

How were we to reach a socially isolated group of older individuals, who did not have the online presence we have come to expect of younger people?

The strategies we typically relied on pre-pandemic to reach sources were suddenly inaccessible. School events were cancelled or shifted online, advocacy and support groups were similarly out-of-reach and many of the vulnerable individuals we wanted to interview did not have stable internet or access to computers. 

Of the 2.4 million U.S. grandparents with guardianship over their grandchildren, about one-fifth live in poverty, and we wanted to ensure we were inclusive and representative in our reporting. 

Connecting with sources via phone lacked the conversational nuances of a face-to-face introduction. It was our first deep dive into child welfare, and without a body of work behind us to back up the notion that we would carry and report their stories with respect and sensibility, many people were hesitant to reveal what they had been through on the record.

Throughout the six months of our fellowship, we found innovative ways to “show up” for the people we reported on in a global pandemic, largely through community engagement.

Many of the caregivers we interviewed for our story were drowning in virtual schooling; the bureaucracy associated with applying for food stamps or other forms of welfare; or had started going back to work again to put food on the table during the pandemic. 

We certainly encountered our share of distrust. Despite meeting with and speaking to some members of Generations United, a caregiver advocacy organization over a year before our project began — and well before the pandemic — our early requests to join an online meeting of grandparents raising grandchildren as “fly-on-the-wall” observers was denied. The next meeting wouldn’t happen for several months.

If they had time to speak with us, these grandparents understandably wanted to protect their grandchildren’s identities. Many did not have time for reporters’ questions. Some were navigating complex family relationships with their adult children or their partners. Others had lost their own adult children just months before to illness or overdose and were coping with the loss while being thrust into this new role. 

Having spoken to the community engagement editor at the Center for Health Journalism, we decided to pursue “an engaged journalism” approach in our own reporting. While looking for the narrative to our story, we had the opportunity to improve the situation for these so-called “grandfamilies” and better understand their needs and challenges.

When we reached out again to the Generation United leadership team, we learned that many grandparents were anxious over everyday decisions they had to make against the backdrop of a deadly virus: Could they safely go to the grocery store? Was it safe to keep their regular medical appointments? What should they do if their grandchildren seemed depressed? They were also receiving a lot of misinformation about vaccines and vitamins that could allegedly boost their immunity to the virus. 

We leveraged our connections to pediatricians, infectious diseases physicians and one child psychologist at MedPage Today to answer their questions about COVID-19 and their risk of infection. 

For grandparents with internet access, we hosted a webinar with some of these experts, who listened to their concerns and gave them advice about virtual versus in-person schooling, or how best to calm anxiety for children with developmental disabilities. For those without internet access, we also answered some crowdsourced questions in a written FAQ included in Generations United’s annual report. 

Afterwards, the group’s leadership told us how much it meant to the caregivers who participated in the webinar to have these experts listen to their concerns and share their advice. One of our panelists was invited to continue in a consulting role for Generations United and was asked to help develop education modules for a “Grandfamilies University” the group is planning.

As reporters, we initially struggled with this sort of community engagement, which was new to us. At first, calling the folks at Generations United “partners” and promising information and advice while also conducting a call-out for sources felt like a “quid pro quo” agreement. 

However, we felt our motivations were sincere and our actions were justified. Contributing to the group’s annual report and hosting the webinar not only helped build trust with members, it also provided them with information they might have struggled to locate otherwise, and which could ultimately help them and the children in their care to stay safe, physically and emotionally. Our engagement project also provided a space for grandfamilies to be seen and heard. 

Our back and forth with families helped us narrow the scope of our series to highlight their most pressing issues, and allowed them to get the information to the communities that most needed to read it. Without the group delivering our news and information to these families, our work could have fallen on deaf ears.

One of the central sources featured in our story on grandfamilies, Gail Engel, wrote to us in an email, “Our stories are all similar yet so different, but they speak to the challenges our families face.” She shared the series with other grandparents and with individuals advocating for new legislation. They read our work and, Engel said, “felt my emotion in the story and the plea for understanding.”

“We need people to understand what these children are experiencing,” she continued. “Thank you! It means a lot to all of our families to read this.”

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