Geraldine Farmer can't sleep.
She worries about her three grandchildren tucked in bed in her Oklahoma City home.
“Lord,” she cries at night, “I can't do this! Lord, I can't do this.”
She dreamed that she and her husband Alvin would be relaxing together in their twilight years after raising five children. She imagined hugging and patting the visiting grandkids goodbye before they headed home.
But the children's mother is a crack addict. So home is Granny's house.
The 65-year-old caretaker represents part of the upheaval in the “Father Knows Best” type of American family that featured a husband, a wife and two or three children. She's representative of the Oklahoma grandparents raising 79,580 grandchildren, a national household trend noted by the U.S. Census Bureau. That's 8.6 percent of Oklahoma's children, according to data from the 2010 Census. About 6.5 percent of children lived with a grandparent in 2000.
Though she battles high blood pressure and poor vision, Farmer has been raising 12-year-old Roger, 9-year-old Nevaeh and 3-year-old Leon alone since her husband died two-and-a-half years ago.
Nevaeh was just 4 when Farmer suspected the girl's mother was running with questionable people and using drugs. She told her daughter that she wanted to keep the child.
“OK, Mama. Take her,” she said.
The very factors that faced the Farmer family are all too common, experts say. The state's high rate of substance abuse, poverty, teen pregnancy and incarceration of women all likely contribute to Oklahoma grandparents raising grandchildren, said Jane Garner, aging services program field representative with the state Department of Human Services.
“So, often grandparents step in to remove a child from an unfriendly home situation,” Garner said.
But once out of the household, Nevaeh had trouble adjusting. She used scissors to shred the new clothes Farmer bought her. She slept in the closet. She hid food under her mattress, though she got all she could eat. She viciously tackled her brother whenever she saw him. And she couldn't seem to stop talking.
One sleepless night, Farmer got up to see Nevaeh's bedroom light still on at 1 a.m. The child was combing her doll's hair.
“I can't sleep. I miss Mama,” she said.
Counselors said Nevaeh felt abandoned; and Farmer told her daughter that she had to talk to the little girl.
By then, the family had to go to Mabel Bassett Correctional Center in McLoud to visit the children's mother, where she's scheduled to stay until 2014 after pleading guilty to possessing, distributing and trying to profit from illegal drugs. The mother cried out her regrets, but assured her daughter that she loved her and told her to mind her grandmother.
It helped some, but Nevaeh got kicked out of first grade the first week of class. She got kicked out of second grade the second week of class at a different school. Her grandmother wrote an essay to get the children into “Preach Unto Them Jesus” school, where Neveah excelled and completed third grade. Nevaeh is better behaved, now, hugs everyone and hopes to become a recognized singer.
“I love my Granny. It's just that sometimes she goes old school. She'll use a switch on me. But if I could pick any granny, I'd pick her. I love her a lot,” said Nevaeh, who sported six braids carefully crafted by her grandmother.
“The Bible says, spare the rod and spoil the child,” Farmer said.
Ray Bitsche, executive director of Sunbeam Family Services in Oklahoma City, said Oklahoma has some of the highest numbers in the country of grandchildren raised by grandparents.
“If you stop and think about it, though, being 60 or 70 years old and then having to maintain an edge, stay on your toes and be attentive for your grandchildren day in and day out, that is a monumental task. And obviously it's done with love and compassion,” Bitsche said. “When I think of the prospect of me taking on that role, it overwhelms me. Grandparents who do that are very special people. I call it God's work.”
Roger and Leon later joined Nevaeh to live with their grandparents. Farmer said Roger also acted out until a few months after Alvin Farmer died in 2008, when the 8-year-old boy pulled on a black hoodie, sneaked out to a video store at 9 one night and got hit by a car. Now the 12-year-old is a calm, smiley boy who takes pride in helping with Leon.
Leon, who loves to be hugged and held when he's not hanging upside down from the drapery rods, said he helps, too.
His cousin, Kameron Turner, explained what Leon does: “He helps her by sleeping late in the morning.”
Leon's lived with his grandparents since he was three days old. His mother confessed that she smoked some crack the day before the baby was born. She lost custody when the drug was found in the newborn's blood stream. Geraldine and Alvin Farmer took him rather than letting him go into foster care.
Farmer said it's been terribly difficult but on the flip side, she doesn't know how she could have made it without the children to tend to after her husband died.
“You just take it one day at a time,” she said.
CONTRIBUTING: PAUL MONIES, DATABASE EDITOR