SEE ALSO: Little support for grandparents caring for grandchildren

A little after 7 a.m., two young boys sit at the kitchen table bored with their waffles.

Six-year-old Andrew Whitlock grabs the syrup bottle and starts shaking it.

Relieved the syrup hadn't exploded all over the kitchen table, grandma swoops in and discovers the sticky cap was fastened on after all.

Andrew's brother, 4-year-old Christopher, laughs even as grandma scolds them to quickly finish eating before Andrew's school bus arrives. Andrew had only about one month left of kindergarten class at Leaders Heights Elementary School before a summer filled with water gun fights and riding bikes with his brothers.

At 64, Linda Warfel never thought she would be taking on the parenting role again. She was ready for retirement.

Instead, she finds herself chasing after her three grandsons -- Andrew, Christopher and David, 5.

At visits to their elementary school classrooms, she might stick out because of her age.

But in York County, Linda and her husband, Perry, are part of the substantial population of grandparents raising their grandchildren.

In York County, 7,681 grandparents lived in the same household as their grandchildren, and 2,728 of them were the sole caregivers, according to 2010 U.S. Census-based American Community Survey.

That number has been growing in recent years. Census figures show a huge spike in 2009, to 3,960, but that was probably a statistical anomaly because of York County's small sample size, a census spokeswoman said.

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On June 30, 2010, Linda's daughter Dana hugged her sons, said goodbye and left them with her aunt. She said she was going to a carnival in Shrewsbury and would be back later.

The boys have not seen or spoken to her since.

None ask where she is.

Perry Warfel takes a break with his grandson, Christopher, outside their Jacobus home. Christopher and his brothers are being taken care of by Perry and
Perry Warfel takes a break with his grandson, Christopher, outside their Jacobus home. Christopher and his brothers are being taken care of by Perry and his wife, Linda. (Bill Kalina Photo)

Dana Warfel, 42, never went to that carnival; instead she headed for Baltimore to track down the boys' father. In her pursuit, she said, her car and $30 were stolen.

By that point she was homeless in Baltimore. She said she spent her days smoking crack and nights in cars with men as she worked as a Garrison Avenue prostitute.

Dana has been struggling with drug addiction for more than half of her life, she admits. She has been in and out of jail -- where she gave birth to her first son and found out she was pregnant with her second. The drugs had consumed so much of her life that her third son, Christopher, was born addicted to heroin, she said.

In April, Baltimore City Police arrested Dana on prostitution charges. She sat in jail for 47 days because she couldn't find anyone to pay her $250 bail. She was released June 10 -- almost a year after she had abandoned her boys.

"I had every intention to go back," Dana said, from a friend's home on the north side of Baltimore. "I feel guilty every day."

But it wasn't the first time Dana walked out on a child.

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Dana was 21 when she legally signed over her daughter Kaitlin to her mother about 20 years ago. The boys' grandparents Linda and Perry, of Jacobus, also raised Kaitlin and, three years ago, watched her marry and start her own family.

Scared "the system" would split the boys up, Linda again stepped in when Dana left them behind.

Just because they're living under her roof, however, doesn't give Linda any peace of mind. Dana still has legal custody; Linda only has educational, physical and medical custody of the boys.

That, combined with her distrust of Dana and her friends, has Linda constantly monitoring the boys. None are allowed outside alone for fear they will be snatched up and taken away.

"Over the years, it was challenging. We did everything we could to help her and get her on the right track," Linda said. "When she left the boys, something was turned off in me. I don't want her to have anything to do with the boys now. She's toxic."

Linda had tried setting up Dana with rehabilitation and housing. But finally, Linda reached a point where her grandsons' safety became a greater concern than her adult daughter's.

Linda Warfel dresses her grandson, David, 5, while his brother, Andrew, 6, finishes breakfast before he goes to school. The Jacobus woman and her husband,
Linda Warfel dresses her grandson, David, 5, while his brother, Andrew, 6, finishes breakfast before he goes to school. The Jacobus woman and her husband, Perry, are raising their grandchildren, including 4-year-old Christopher. The couple s daughter, Dana, left her children in June 2010. Linda Warfel says despite a lifetime of effort to help their daughter, Dana Warfel s drug habit has made it impossible for her to care for her children. The Warfels are among the thousands of Yorkers who are raising their grandchildren. (Bill Kalina Photo)

She's reminded of that every time she takes the boys on Interstate 83 -- where her daughter was being pursued in a police chase with the boys in the backseat a few years ago. Andrew can't ride on the interstate without thinking about it, she said.

Even a trip to the doctor has proven trying on Linda. The boys watched as she had blood work done.

"Remember when mommy put the needle in her arm like this?" she remembered Andrew asking his brothers, as he mimed a heroin needle going into an elbow vein.

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The simple task of taking the boys to the dentist also proved challenging, for a different reason.

The Health Insurance Privacy Act, passed in 1996, protects the boys' health information. Before she had medical custody, Linda had no legal rights to make any decisions about the children she was raising.

With no support groups in the county to assist older adults raising grandchildren, the Warfels had to figure out their situation on their own. Through a church friend at Christ United Methodist Church in Jacobus, she was referred to state Rep. Ron Miller, R-Jacobus.

Miller's office connected her with the Bair Foundation, a Christian nonprofit group based in New Wilmington that operates several programs for children, teens and families. The foundation guided her to becoming a kinship parent, which gave her medical custody of the boys.

The medical custody role comes with a heap of paperwork. Every week, Linda must fill out forms for each of the three boys. She has to track doctor visits, school progress reports and their behavior.

A sympathetic librarian helped Linda photocopy the boys' weekly forms to cut back on repetitive paperwork, she said.

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But it's not all scolding and paperwork. There are the times Linda chases the boys around the backyard with water guns, performs surgery on fallen toy parachute fighters, watches the boys execute flips on the trampoline and cheers them on at T-ball games.

One warm night last spring, 65-year-old Perry had finished working a full day's shift at York Casket and mowing two lawns.

Although he wanted to retire early, Perry stayed in the workforce to support the boys. He was exhausted, but found the energy to encourage Andrew at his last game of the season.

"Andrew! You gotta stand up and play!" Perry yelled from the sideline.

Andrew picked himself up from his grassy spot, walked over to the ball and threw it to first base. The runner was declared safe as Andrew turned to walk back to his position in midfield.

"Andrew, I don't think he really cares for it," Perry said, chuckling. "He just don't seem like he's into it. I hope he pays attention. That's one of the things he doesn't do. I'm afraid he's gonna get hit with a bat."

The Warfels are not prepared to give up their life of T-ball games, school picnics and Sunday morning church service with the boys.

Every three months, they appear before a judge or a master, who is an attorney who hears matters related to juvenile court, to update the boys' situation. Linda is pursuing adoption.

"I'll take care of them as long as I need to," she said.

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Despite her struggles, Dana said she is confident she would be a good mother. She maintains her goal is to find a way back to Pennsylvania, get clean and win over her boys.

"I know they miss me. Or I hope they miss me," she said. "Cause I miss them. I don't want this to be like this."

The boys' father is in a homeless shelter in Baltimore. He declined to be interviewed.

Dana acknowledges the strain she has put on her parents and said she doesn't blame them for cutting her out of their lives.

"I know they're not at an age to be wanting my small children," Dana said. "I don't want to not be in the boys' life. I'm going to be there. I hope it's sooner rather than later. Mom and Dad, they've helped. They were doing the tough love thing. They have every right (to be upset)."

When Dana called from prison in April, Linda declined to accept the collect call. She never returned her daughter's May jailhouse letter. She tries to shield the boys from their parents' drug struggles and abandonment.

Next month, the Warfels will complete the first step of the adoption process by attending a hearing to terminate any rights Dana wishes to retain, Linda said.

Linda knew she had her work cut out for her when she insisted on taking responsibility for the boys.

It took her an entire year to train the boys to calmly sit through a church service. She finally doesn't have to stay for kindergarten classes because Andrew has stopped crying for her. And the boys are no longer afraid of police officers.

"Some days, I thought it was a lost cause," Linda said. "Some days are harder than others and some are the best in the world.

"I'm very thankful that their parents' drug use didn't cause any physical and mental disabilities. I feel very blessed. I feel like the Lord was watching over these boys because they're healthy and happy now."

-- Reach Amanda Dola sinski at 505-5437 or ado lasinski@yorkdispatch.com.