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While many couples in their golden years are planning vacations and other trappings of retired life, the Ipsons are looking forward to parent-teacher conferences and another round of graduations.

When Vickie and Ray Ipson took in their two young granddaughters after their daughter's problems with drugs caused her to lose custody of the girls, the unexpected responsibility of raising a new generation of children was difficult to swallow at first. Ray, who just retired, is 62 and Vickie is 54. Vickie Ipson credits the Utah-based Grandfamilies program with helping the Draper couple deal with their new reality.

"If I wouldn't have had [Grandfamilies] in my life, I wouldn't have been able to do this," she said.

The Ipsons were early beneficiaries of the program, which is run under the umbrella of the Children's Service Society. Started in 2002 as a free service to a growing number of grandparents and relatives in Salt Lake County in similar situations as the Ipsons, Grandfamilies is beginning to expand its reach, with a new office in Davis County opening up this month. The program already operates in Salt Lake, Tooele and Utah counties.

Program director Jacci Graham sees Grandfamilies as a more effective and cost-effective alternative to state-based child welfare services, which often place children into foster care. In cases where children can't be raised by their parents, Graham argues children are better served if they can be raised by a family member instead. No matter how well-intentioned foster parents may be, being thrust into a strange family can be traumatic for children and leads to more problems in the long run, she said.

Grandfamilies aims to help grandparents and other relatives to take on the job of raising children so the state doesn't have to fill that role. The prospective guardians get help navigating the labyrinthine process of obtaining legal custody of children and with the often-difficult change in the family structure.

The need for this type of help is growing, Graham said. In 2000, census records showed that 42,000 kids in the state were being raised by a relative other than their parents. In 2010, that number almost doubled to 83,000.

"Almost 10 percent of all children in the state of Utah are now living with relatives," Graham said, and drugs are usually behind the family shake-ups.

Graham estimates that 7,800 kids in Davis County are currently being raised by grandparents or other relatives. With help from Davis Behavioral Health, which is donating space for group meetings in Layton, and the Davis County Health Department's donation of administrative office space in Clearfield, the need to expand into Davis County is finally being met. Much of the funding to expand north has also come from large anonymous contributions from two private individuals, Graham said.

"We could not afford to do this without community support," she said.

Vickie Ipson, who has been raising her grandchildren now for about seven years, said she's excited that families in Davis County won't have to travel as far to get the support that she's had. Though she was hesitant about the program when social workers first referred her to Grandfamilies, the support and opportunity to meet grandparents in similar situations proved to be indispensable, Ipson said.

"I thought it was a bunch of old people," she said. "I realized this was not what I thought it was. It was a support group. … Here I am all these years later, and I'm still going."

Twitter: @KimballBennion

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