The opioid epidemic is creating a new demographic of parents in the adoption community: Grandparents.
The stats are staggering: 2.6 million children in this country are being raised by grandparents or relatives. That’s up 8% since the year 2000. And, after years of decline, the number of children entering foster care is rising, too: Over 30,000 more children entered foster care in 2015 than in 2012.
So, what’s the culprit? Two words: Opioid epidemic.
Opioid Addiction in America
Opioid addiction* is a sad reality in today’s America, and it’s putting a lot of pressure on grandparents. These aging Americans feel they have no choice but to keep their family intact by gaining custody of their grandchildren, so those children don’t go into foster care or get adopted by someone outside the family. Grandparents are putting their long-awaited retirement plans on the back burner, digging in their heels, and parenting—all over again.
As challenging as this situation is, grandparent adoption is having an overwhelmingly positive impact on children. Studies show that being raised by “grandfamilies” helps protect children who have been exposed to trauma (and, we can surmise, prevents further trauma from occurring). In 2017, the National Center on Grandfamilies (which is part of Generations United, an organization that advocates for families headed by grandparents and other relatives) published a report on the protective role of grandparents and other relatives in raising children exposed to trauma. The key findings from this report are listed in the text box on this page.
In the Executive Summary (p. 1) of this report, Dr. Sarah Springer of the American Academy of Pediatrics (Council on Foster Care, Adoption and Kinship Care) says, “Kinship caregivers play a critical role in helping traumatized children to heal. By maintaining ties to family, community, and culture, children are spared additional losses. Being sheltered in the loving arms of a familiar adult” makes all the difference for these children.
Barriers for Grandparents
Although adoption often has positive outcomes for many children, in the U.S. foster care system, the goal is always reunification over adoption. As the opioid tide is rising in this country, so too are the rates of grandparents adopting grandchildren. Grandparents are committing to this responsibility in myriad ways: Taking temporary custody. Becoming foster parents. And even formally adopting their grandchildren and raising them in a traditional parent-child relationship.
But real barriers stand in the way. Outdated adoption laws that prevent a quick (less traumatic for the already traumatized child) transition from parent custody to grandparent custody. The costs of adoption (yes, even grandparents have to pay those fees). The paperwork of the foster care system, which delays quick and safe placement. The expense of raising grandchildren (some of whom need costly specialists that may or may not be covered by insurance). Grandparents continue to ask lawmakers and state officials, “Why do we (family members) have to pay to adopt our own grandchild or another family member? That doesn’t seem fair or right!” It’s arguable that the kinship adoption/foster process should take much less time for family members than it does for non-family members—and should cost much less.
“Safe Harbors” Need Support, Too
In a recent article in The New York Times, Katharine Q. Seelye writes, “Grandparents have long provided safe harbor for grandchildren for a host of reasons—dire financial straits, teen pregnancy, military deployment. But not since the crack epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s . . . have so many children been at risk because of parental drug addiction. With the rise in heroin use, grandparents are increasingly raising their grandchildren because the parents are either dead, in jail, in rehab, or otherwise incapable of taking care of their children.”
But with this rise comes the need for resources. And right now, these grandparents lack the resources they need to raise their grandchildren adequately. The outcry by grandparents has been ongoing for many years, but it’s only now starting to be heard and acted upon.
In an interview with NBC News, Larry Cooper (who leads the Children’s Home Network, a Tampa-based nonprofit that helps at-risk families) explained that grandparents are “yelling, screaming out loud for legislators and local officials to step up and support them.” In this same report, NBC News reporters Hannah Rappleye and Brenda Breslauer explain: “As the opioid epidemic forces increasing numbers of children into foster care or otherwise out of their parents’ custody, grandparents . . . are stepping in. Those grandparents face the daunting task of caring for young, vulnerable children while navigating courtrooms and complex child welfare systems, often with little financial or social support—all while coping with their adult offspring’s addiction.”
Take Jen Smith, for example. She’s a mother and grandmother who agreed to be interviewed by us on condition of anonymity. Jen is not just any grandmother: She’s a superhero whose cape must be buried in the laundry room somewhere—because she definitely has one. After raising a house full of children, all of whom are now adults, and after finally being able to retire after years of working at a local factory in her small, tightly knit town, she and her husband Bob are now raising their granddaughter, Sophia.
Jen and Bob are in their 70s. Sophia is 10.
The Smiths live in a region that’s been hit particularly hard by opioid and heroin addiction—so much so that overdoses, hospitalizations, and deaths occur at startling and sad rates. The statewide statistics are alarming: In this state, from 2000 to 2014, hospitalizations increased 225% for pain medication overdoses and increased 162% for heroin overdoses. During that same timeframe, the national death rate of overdoses involving opioids increased 200%, according to a 2016 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Sophia was born to parents who were both active drug users throughout the pregnancy. Her birth parents are no longer together. Sophia’s birth father (Joe) has served multiple prison terms on and off throughout his life. He has been using drugs and drinking alcohol heavily since he was very young. His behavior is erratic and unpredictable. For long stretches of time, there is no contact—sometimes, they don’t know where he is. Sophia’s birth mother is a known drug user and has not been in contact with Sophia for several years. The last Jen had heard, Sophia’s birth mom had been on crack cocaine and also had some mental illness issues. She suffered sexual abuse from her brother (that brother has been banned from having any contact with Sophia, ever). Sophia’s early exposure to drugs (in utero, possibly as an infant too, when she was living with her birth parents) may have resulted in various emotional and behavioral concerns that came to light when Sophia entered elementary school under the care of her grandparents.
Grandparent Adoption = Economy Boost?
No longer is it unusual to see grandparents stepping forward to be the advocates and the strongest voices for these children who have no voice of their own—through no fault of their own. Grandparents are doing everything they can to ensure that these children do not get left behind or moved into the U.S. foster care system. And, although their decision is made out of love for family—not to help the U.S. economy—the numbers don’t lie. As reported by TODAY, “for every child in foster care, 20 are being raised by a family member. This . . . saves the nation about $4 billion a year, according to Generations United, but there are unique challenges that come with the joy of raising a grandchild.”
This new segment of the adoption community has made a choice: Put away the sunscreen and the bottles of vino. Put off those long-awaited retirement plans and travel bucket lists. For now, there will be no permanent move to warmer climes, no trips to exotic continents, no nights out with friends whenever they feel like it—because there’s a young child in their life who needs help with her homework, ideas for the science fair, assistance with working on reading and spelling, a ride to practice, a pep talk after a hard day at school. For these grandparents, gone is the anticipated ease of “empty nesting” after raising their children and seeing them off to adulthood. And, that space they finally carved out in their schedule to engage in long-placed-on-hold hobbies and interests? It’s filled instead with attending PTA meetings and parent–teacher conferences with adults half their age, taking the child to his or her regular appointment with the psychologist or behavioral specialist, attending sporting events and practices, and being the parent that their own adult child can’t be right now.
The grandparents interviewed about this say, it’s worth it. Every last stressor is worth it. They didn’t hesitate for a second to step forward. Because that child is worth it. In the case of Jen and Bob, they will do anything to make sure Sophia is well cared for and knows what the love of family feels like. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
“It Gets So Lonely”
Grandparents like Jen are doing things they perhaps never thought they would, often at an advanced age—and often while they are dealing with health problems of their own. They are driving their young grandchildren to scout meetings, rooting for them at baseball games and basketball practice, and helping them with their homework. In certain states, they are learning how to help their kid with Common Core math right along with (much younger) other parents. Their friends, perhaps fellow retirees and true “empty nesters,” may not understand what they are going through as their friends “parent again.” This can leave grandparents feeling lonely and isolated, especially in the case of a single or widowed grandparent. It gets so lonely, says some of the grandparents featured in the excellent but solemn NBC video montage, One Nation Overdosed: Grandparents Taking on the Role of Parents.
But, despite all of that, these older adults advocate strongly for their grandchildren, going to bat for them in unbelievable brave, loving, and selfless ways. As tired as these grandparents may be at the end of a long school day or on the Friday evening of an even longer school week, they are unwavering in their commitment. They are raising their grandchildren and keeping them in the family, even if these children can’t be raised by their birth parents—maybe not now, maybe not ever. (For some children, their parents have died as a result of a drug overdose). If the birth parents are still alive, then reunification depends on the birth parents’ ability to get clean—and stay clean.
Custody Options for Grandparents
Once grandparents know that they must step forward, what options do they have? Some seek temporary custody while the birth parents go through rehab, serve time in prison for crimes committed while under the influence of drugs, or try to get their lives back together in other ways that may not include rehab or prison. Other grandparents seek long-term custody and become the court’s designated authority for deciding whether the parents get to see their children or not and whether such visits are supervised or unsupervised. Some grandparents go the most permanent route of all: They formally adopt their grandchildren. The birth parents sign a termination of parental rights (or TPR).
As Jen has learned, “It’s very difficult to terminate a parent’s rights, and she [Sophia’s birth mom] knows how it works from having lost 9 other children that way. She has had 12 children with 12 different men. Now she has legal custody of only 2 of those children.”
Jen explains about the custody that the courts awarded her and her husband. “It started that we [as Sophia’s grandparents] had partial custody, and it still stayed that way after we went to court that last time—only now, it changed that she [Sophia’s birth mom] has no contact with Sophia, and it’s up to my discretion if Sophia sees her father.” When Joe comes to visit Sophia, Jen makes the decision as to whether her son can see his daughter. We asked her what it takes for her to say “yes” or “no” to Joe’s request. “Well, it all depends on his condition when he shows up at the house—is he sober? Is he drunk? Is he giving me an attitude?”
Effects of Drug Use on Children
Grandparents face another challenge, too: Some of these children were born addicted to drugs, or they may have been physically, emotionally, or psychologically abused. Alcohol may have been consumed regularly by the birth mother throughout the pregnancy. As an infant, the child may have been neglected. Or, worse, abused. Therefore, children may have unresolved trauma when they are placed in their grandparents’ custody and care. Schooling may not be as straightforward as enrolling them in the local public school and checking their backpack every night. They may have learning disabilities and other behavioral and/or developmental problems as a result of their early lives—and, often, a history of physical, emotional, or psychological trauma or exposure to such trauma. They may be grieving the loss of their birth parents and may become depressed as they transition from one home to another. All of these possibilities pose an extra challenge for grandparents already working hard just to keep the family together.
Case in point: When Sophia first came to live with her grandparents permanently, after they were granted custody of her, she had a really hard time coping. “We took her to see a trauma therapist,” Jen explained. Jen also enrolled Sophia in a youth advocacy social services program in which a mobile therapist came to their home on a regular schedule to meet with Sophia, work with her, and advocate on her behalf within the education system. In this way, Sophia was able to get the help she needed in order to thrive, academically and socially. Sophia was enrolled in a partial school program for almost 2 years, after which time she began attending the local public elementary school (Jen’s home school district).
In addition to grandparents’ desire to keep their grandchildren legally part of their family, and their work at advocating on behalf of their grandchildren within the education and mental health system, it’s possible that grandparents also face another formidable obstacle: Parenting their grandchildren while simultaneously still parenting (in a way) and worrying about their own adult children, who are struggling with drug addiction, alcoholism, and/or other challenges. In between the PTA meetings and the swim meets and the studying and the homework, these grandparents also may be helping their adult children navigate the complex world of the U.S. court system, the Department of Child and Family Services, getting clean, going through rehab, serving time in prison, attending therapy, and/or a myriad of other situations. And, if the child’s parent is deceased, then the grandparent is grieving the loss of his or her child while simultaneously trying to keep things afloat for the living child left behind—who also may be grieving (if he or she remembers the birth parent).
Not only is it a time issue; it’s a money issue. Remember, some of the children who are the true victims of the opioid epidemic in this country are children who are seeing specialists for various physical, emotional, and behavioral issues and for exposure to trauma—those specialists come at a price, and often it’s not as simple as a $15 co-pay. If talk therapy isn’t covered by insurance, or if the therapist requires you to pay up-front and then submit for reimbursement, the price tag per visit could be hundreds of dollars. For retirees living on a fixed income, this could become quite a serious concern.
Grandparents who spoke to NBC News in this article said, they need support. For any parent raising any child, the costs can be astronomical and intimidating. “But raising a child left behind by opioid addiction can mean thousands of dollars spent on adoption and legal fees. Children exposed to the trauma of parental substance abuse, or to opioids before birth, need therapy and extra care to thrive. Grandparents, many of whom are on limited incomes, quickly find themselves overwhelmed.” (Remember those specialists that Sophia saw, and benefited tremendously from early in her elementary school years?) There are resources available for raising grandchildren, but these resources “vary from state to state, and eligibility for financial assistance or programming can depend on a variety of factors, including income level, or whether a grandparent becomes a licensed foster care parent.”
Even with all of the challenges that parenting one’s grandchild brings, an increasing number of grandparents are confidently and capably taking on this role because the opioid crisis leaves them no choice. For some aging adults, their new role as a parent might happen just as retirement is about to occur.
Grandparents, You Are Not Alone
Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, in an interview with TODAY, said, “It is so important for grandparents to know that you are not alone, to be able to talk to other people who are experiencing what you are experiencing. Our goal is to provide support to the caregivers and children so they break any cycle for intergenerational addiction.” Grandparents can check out support groups on social media platforms like Facebook (see text box on this page for links to these groups), where they can connect with other grandparents facing similar joys and challenges. These are closed groups in which membership is closely monitored and must be approved in order to ensure that new members have the appropriate life experiences to become part of the group.
Legislators Are Listening
Grandparents finally may start to get the resources they’ve been asking for. The legislators are listening! In February 2018, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee unanimously passed the Supporting Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Act, introduced by Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Bob Casey (D-PA). The act allows them to form a federal task force to study this issue and to support grandparents with the resources they need. The senators hope that the Senate will act quickly to make this bill into a law.
Quiet Champions Without Capes
Remember Jen, the 70-something superhero grandma we interviewed who’s raising Sophia? Well, we asked how Sophia’s doing now that she’s a bit older and has been at home with her grandparents for years now. Jen smiles and says, “Oh, she goes to Girl Scouts, the YMCA, the library . . . she has played softball, soccer, basketball, and now she plays pickleball! We are quite busy with her!”
Sophia gets good grades and does well in school. Jen and Bob get help from their other grown children. One of Sophia’s favorite aunts will take her for an afternoon or an overnight. Or, Jen and Bob’s grown granddaughter (in her 30s) will come over and treat her grandma by cleaning her house. Sophia has lots of cousins, aunts, and uncles. She is surrounded by support and love. Borrowing from the title of that seminal grandparent report from Generations United, Sophia is definitely “wrapped in loving arms,” and she is doing OK. She and her family are working hard and loving hard, and it shows. Her grandparents, Jen and Bob, have created a safe space for Sophia—a stable home surrounded by love and family. They are showing her that if you work hard, and play hard, life can be pretty darn good. They’re also showing her that quiet champions live among us all—and they’ll step forward out of love every single time.
Grandparents like Jen and Bob may not wear the capes, but then again, not all superheroes do. Because of them, kids like Sophia will shine, and the cycle of addiction will snap. So we hope.
For additional sources not listed here, see the text box titled “Resources for Grandparents.”
American Society of Addiction Medicine. (2016). Opioid addiction 2016 fact & figures. Retrieved from https://www.asam.org/docs/default-source/advocacy/opioid-addiction-disease-facts-figures.pdf
Collins, Casey Bill to Support Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Unanimously Passes HELP Committee [Press Release]. (2018, February 28). Retrieved from https://www.collins.senate.gov/newsroom/collins-casey-bill-support-grandparents-raising-grandchildren-unanimously-passes-help
Generations United, National Center on Grandfamilies. (2017). In Loving Arms: The Protective Role of Grandparents and Other Relatives in Raising Children Exposed to Trauma—State of Grandfamilies 2017. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from https://dl2.pushbulletusercontent.com/uhDY7UgdGYnOod6G7VFkdKnuzE3yALmr/17-InLovingArms-Grandfamilies.pdf
Rappleye, H., & Breslauer, B. (2017, October 20). Opioid crisis forces grandparents to raise their grandkids. NBC News – Storyline – One Nation Overdosed. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/americas-heroin-epidemic/opioid-crisis-forces-grandparents-raise-their-grandkids-n808991
Seelye, K. Q. (2016, May 21). Children of heroin crisis find refuge in grandparents’ arms. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/05/05/us/grandparents-heroin-impact-kids.html
Whalen, J. (2016, December 15). The children of the opioid crisis. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-children-of-the-opioid-crisis-1481816178
*For the purposes of this article, we focus more on the “grandparent adoption” data than on the “opioid addiction” data, but, for a definition, statistics, and facts on opioid addiction, see this report from the American Society of Addiction Medicine.