ATHENS, Ga. - Elizabeth Goss' typical day starts with a wry grin and the words "Put that back."
They're closely followed by the words "Stop that," "quit" and "put it down" - words that will continue throughout the day, words familiar to any parent trying to keep up with the nonstop, inquisitive activity of a pair of young children.
But Ms. Goss is older than most parents dealing with 2- and 3-year-old boys - at 50, having raised three children already, she finds herself parenting again, raising the pair of boys left behind when her daughter, 21-year-old Shanta "Dena" Dowdy, disappeared two years ago.
She's not alone. Across the United States, about 7 percent of children are being raised by their grandparents - about 4.5 million children.
In the Athens area, close to half of all grandparents who live in the same homes with their grandchildren are their primary caretakers - and the numbers are likely to keep growing, say service providers who work with those families.
It's hard sometimes, Ms. Goss says. She can't do all of the fun things she'd like to do with her grandchildren - play ball and run around and other demanding physical activities. She's grateful for the support she has received from her community. They've helped keep the boys in clothes and shoes.
Looking at 3-year-old Marcus, she sees the face of the daughter whose skeletal remains were found only weeks ago, buried in a shallow grave in north Athens. Looking at 2-year-old Markel, she sometimes sees the face of the boys' father, Marcus Hall, the man she blames for her daughter's death.
Mr. Hall, who was Ms. Dowdy's boyfriend when she disappeared, is in prison serving a sentence of life without parole for the kidnapping and assault of another woman. Ms. Dowdy would come home with bruises and black eyes before her disappearance but wouldn't listen to her mother's pleas that she leave her boyfriend, Ms. Goss says.
Current estimates are that about one in 20 U.S. children are being raised by a grandparent - that could grow to one in 10 during the next decade, said Deborah Phillips, the project coordinator for Project Health Grandparents of Northeast Georgia, a support organization for caretaker grandparents run through the University of Georgia's School of Social Work.
One of the key services provided is legal support, because of the precarious position many grandparents face when it comes to custody.
"It's so important," Ms. Robinson said. "If you've got a child with a drug problem, who can show up at a moment's notice and take their children away from you, there's nothing you can do. You can call the police, but they're still the legal guardians of those children."
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