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Grandparents Are Raising the Orphans of the Opioid Crisis

Retirees are trading sedans for minivans, moving out of senior communities and searching for work at record numbers — all to cover the new expenses that come with playing mom and dad again

Debbie, a 61-year-old factory worker in Melbourne, Kentucky, first had her simple, sleepy life upturned in 2009, when one of her daughters, a high school cheerleader, was prescribed Oxycodone after a fall from a human pyramid. The daughter then shared the pills with her three siblings, leading to their addiction. Over the next couple of years, three of Debbie’s daughters gave birth to five children, all of whom required extra care due to opioid dependency and fetal alcohol syndrome. And so, Debbie stepped in. 

But it was a struggle. 

“Grandma wasn’t able to keep up with government services,” explains Nycole Brundidge, the Child Protection Services (CPS) supervisor assigned to Debbie’s case, who tells me that doctors visits and required immunizations fell by the wayside. In recounting Debbie’s story (which contributed to Brundidge’s premature resignation last year), the 40-year-old echoes a phrase she regularly heard from fatigued CPS colleagues: “If you raise your children, you can spoil your grandchildren. If you spoil your children, you will raise your grandchildren.” 

Of course, it’s more nuanced than that, and calling men and women who struggle with addiction “spoiled” may not be entirely fair. Rene Heinrich, a family lawyer in Kentucky who has worked on more than a thousand custodial grandparents cases over the past 12 years, points to the self-medication of untreated psychological illnesses and “a mental health system that sucks.” But Tonya Hornsby, a 49-year-old advertising associate in Kentucky who adopted her grandchild after her daughter’s fatal heroin overdose in 2015, uses similar language. “We’ve failed our kids because we tried to give them everything we never had, and they became spoiled rotten brats,” she tells me. “Then they have kids and don’t want to take care of them. I know a lady who’s raising two of her grandchildren because her daughter had a baby and came to her six months later in tears complaining that she ‘had to take care of the child every day.’” 

As such, grandparents are changing diapers, preparing lunch boxes and attending soccer games more than ever before. In fact, as the opioid epidemic has led to this widespread phenomenon of grandparents raising grandchildren over the last decade, mawmaw and popop are now outnumbered two to one, with three million American grandparents currently raising nearly six million kids. And as with everything else, the coronavirus has only complicated matters. Some numbers to that end: For 50- to 59-year-olds, the COVID-19 death rate is 1.3 percent, more than six times as fatal as it is for anyone below 40 and 10 times deadlier than the flu. For 60- to 69-year-olds, the death rate triples to 3.6 percent, which doubles again for 70- to 79-year-olds and nearly doubles again for those over 80. 

In terms of the why, grandparents are typically looked to first in times of parental incapacity because federal law requires states to prioritize placing children with relatives. “Grandparents are often the best and only choice,” explains Angela Sausser, executive director of the Public Children Services Association of Ohio, a coalition of child-safety agencies that’s seen an 82 percent increase of children placed with kinship caregivers, most often seniors nearing (or in) retirement who save taxpayers $4 billion each year by preventing children from entering the foster-care system. “Grandparents provide love, shelter, food, clothing, everything,” she explains. “And there hasn’t been a lot of support for them.”

That, however, may be changing. Last month, Congress passed the Family First Prevention Services Act, providing increased financial support for kinship caregivers. In Ohio, as in other states particularly stung by the opioid crisis, per diems for foster parents have increased. The thing is, Sausser says that many grandparents resist entering the foster system for fear of relinquishing custody of their grandchildren to the state. Instead, often at a moment’s notice, seniors are stocking up on Wet Ones to begin parental epilogues in downsized homes. “This can be incredibly challenging since many have scaled way back in retirement,” she notes. (Nearly half of grandparents caring for grandchildren are over 60, a quarter have a disability and one in five lives below the poverty line.) 

And so, many of them are rejoining the labor force. For example, after retiring from the local water district after 30 years on the job, 61-year-old Rusty Collinsworth began selling water meters when he and his wife Michelle, 56, adopted their grandchild due to their daughter Lindsey’s decade-long heroin addiction. “We always hoped we’d be grandparents, but that never materialized,” Michelle laments, estimating that they’ve spent well over $100,000 parenting their granddaughter, who attends a private school and struggles with medical challenges unrelated to her rough start. (Thankfully, Rusty’s second career includes excellent health care.)

Compounding things, grandparents often never see it coming. “Addiction is a disease that can easily be hidden from family for years and years,” Brundidge explains. “You think everything’s going well with your children, and then suddenly, you put two-and-two together.” When the seasons would change, for example, Rusty confusedly searched for missing lawn equipment in the garage. In hindsight, the Collinsworths find it silly that they hadn’t realized Lindsey was quietly pawning their belongings. Or that every couple of days, she’d ask for $30 — for “new work shoes” or to “fill the tank up” — which they gladly lent her since she always paid them back. 

“I didn’t realize how cheap heroin is,” Michelle adds with a sigh. 

When their granddaughter was born, after 15 days in the ICU to kick methadone, Michelle and Rusty took her in. “We were never grandparents,” Michelle explains. “We were immediately put into the role of parents again.” They hoped the biological father would step in, but he too was struggling with drugs. (Lindsey met him at a treatment program.) “At first, his family said he had three years of sobriety, which sadly wasn’t true. So Lindsey and the baby lived with us, and that’s never changed.”

“Grandparents in these situations are silent heroes,” says Amy Goyer, AARP’s national family and caregiving expert who says most people don’t even realize grandparents are raising grandchildren. “Since it typically occurs when there’s been a crisis in the family, they consider these to be ‘private’ issues and remain silent.” Goyer has been the point person for grandparents raising grandchildren at the AARP for the past 30 years and says the phenomenon mirrors societal disruption, including military deployments, the crystal meth crisis and 2008 recession. “The opioid epidemic is just the latest driver,” she explains.

That is, until the coronavirus pandemic. Adults over the age of 60 are being asked to isolate and not have contact with children, but “this isn’t possible for grandparents who have the primary responsibility for raising their grandchildren,” Lent adds. “These grandfamilies can’t take a break from each other. Like our first responders, caregivers are the first line of defense for the children in their care.”

COVID-19 or not, seniors are increasingly sacrificing their own health to raise grandchildren. One retired woman recently told Goyer that her grandson’s shoes no longer fit, so she replaced them instead of refilling her own prescriptions. “That’s a real issue,” Goyer notes. “These people have to put food on the table and meet their grandchild’s needs. Others have young ones needing counseling, which impacts whether or not they pay for their own health care.” Michelle has mobility issues related to multiple sclerosis, limiting the physical activities she can do with her granddaughter. Instead, she and Rusty watch her play in parks or on the climbing wall at the gym. In other words, Michelle explains, “She does a lot of things while we sit there, quietly supervising.”

Becky Baker suffers from chronic back problems, which makes keeping up with her 2-year-old granddaughter challenging. “She’s quicker than me,” explains the 47-year-old, also in Northern Kentucky, whose 17-year-old son impregnated a 13-year-old girl back in 2018. The son is still “on the opiates real bad,” Baker tells me, so she’s raising her granddaughter while facilitating court-mandated visitations with the baby’s mom three times a week. Which raises additional problems: As a minor, the mother has lived with a carousel of undesirable family members and foster parents that Baker has barred her granddaughter from visiting. When the court allowed the teen mother to live with her sister and boyfriend, Baker insisted she instead be placed with a foster family when she learned the boyfriend was a convicted rapist. 

It was a lateral move, at best, because when Baker went out to dinner with the foster couple to meet them, the man seemed distracted. “We were conversating, and he kept drifting off,” Baker recalls. “I turn my head to see what he’s looking at, and he’s staring at a young girl with a toddler sitting in the next booth. Then, when we were saying goodbye in the parking lot and setting a date for visitation, I catch him looking at another girl with a baby!” 

Unsettled, Baker started an internet investigation and found a mugshot of the man, who had been arrested for peering at young children through a motel room window. She also learned he was a sex offender who was prohibited from seeing his own grandchildren. “But he’s fostering a teenage girl, and I’m supposed to allow my granddaughter in his home?!?!” Baker wonders, exacerbated. (The couple’s foster license was revoked after Baker witnessed the man kissing the baby on her lips.)

Such circumstances often lead to caregiver depression and social isolation, says Lent of Generations United — especially for single grandparents, who find it challenging to date as a single, middle-age working man/woman unexpectedly thrust back into parenthood. “Raising a grandchild at this age means no dating,” Hornsby says. “Friday night when I leave work, I’m usually alone with my granddaughter until Monday morning because there’s no childcare available locally.”

She could rely on her own mother, 72-year-old Charlene, but she says, empathetically, “She shouldn’t be a babysitter at this point in their life.” Charlene, though, is familiar with intergenerational parenting, having raised two of her grandsons already (the children of Hornsby’s sister, Shannon). “She had some drug problems and a bad marriage,” Charlene tells me. The youngest of the grandsons, at 27, moved out last year and Charlene now jokes that she’s “an empty-nester.” 

As for how she’d fix what, in her family at least, has become a generational issue, above all — even more than money — Charlene wishes there was more childcare support from the state. “I mean, I know it sounds impossible, but it would be a break when you really needed to do something where you can’t bring a child.” 

Goyer explains that the problem here is that such programs do exist, grandparents just aren’t aware of them. “There are kinship navigator programs that support grandparents and connect them to support groups,” she assures me. 

I sit in with one of these groups 30 minutes north of L.A. facilitated by ONEgeneration, a nonprofit that advocates for custodial grandparents and provides connection and support to “break the isolation kinship families face when parents can no longer parent.” In a fluorescent-lit conference room helmed by a ONEgeneration representative, a dozen or so retirees pass a box of prepackaged mini coffee cakes and share updates on their respective parenting challenges. 

One grandmother, Sonya (a pseudonym), recently took in two grandchildren after her daughter died in a car accident, and she says she’s so busy “keeping them alive” that she doesn’t have time or space to fill out requisite adoption forms, so she’s been sneaking away to a nearby park in order to do so. Meanwhile, the hyperactive 4-year-old grandson stays up all night, running through her two-bedroom ranch house at four in the morning, recently breaking her front window and four-post bed when he used it as monkey bars. 

“Does anyone have suggestions about managing phone use?” asks another grandmother, eliciting sympathetic nods from the other gray heads in the room. 

“With our grandchildren, the rule is they give them to us when they go to bed, and we keep them charged in our bedroom,” explains Phil, a grizzled veteran with a booming voice. “Our home, our rules. Of course, when they’re back with their mother once a month, there are no rules.”

Other shares are more emotional. Rose, a pseudonymous 70-something undocumented immigrant of Mexico, explains through broken English that after her son was deported, her 5-year-old granddaughter asked for a list of phone numbers of other family members, explaining, “‘You and Papa are gonna die, and I need to know who to call after 911.’ Another time, she asked if we were gonna leave her the house when we die.”

“That’s just a way to protect herself,” the ONEgeneration facilitator responds. 

That’s another thing — with all eyes on an opioid crisis disproportionately impacting white families, the long history of custodial grandparents in migrant and African-American communities is often forgotten. “Extended family has always been as significant or more significant than the nuclear family for Black people,” says Brenda Stevenson, a UCLA professor specializing in African-American history who tells me that that during slavery, parents often died early or were sold away from their children, so grandparents raised them until they reached the age of labor. Post-slavery, sharecroppers lived in large households extending beyond one generation so that while young adults worked in the field, grandparents could take care of the children. During the Great Migration from 1916 to 1970, Stevenson adds, when 6 million African Americans moved to cities in the Northeast, Midwest and West, often adults would go first and leave grandparents to raise the children until it was safe to join them. 

“It’s interesting how successive generations fool with the terminology,” notes Earl Smith, the 73-year-old author of Policing Black Bodies: How Black Lives Are Surveilled and How to Work for Change. “When I was growing up in New York in the 1950s, every couple of days a family guy would be sent off to Attica or Sing Sing and the partner would have to work, so kids would be taken care of by a grandparent. And when those being sent to prison are black women, who have historically been incarcerated at six times the rate of white women, 90 percent of the time, grandparents are taking care of those kids. And who suffers the most? The five million kids under 18 who have at least one parent incarcerated.”

Demographics aside, Kentucky attorney Heinrich finds the struggle of grandparents raising grandchildren only getting more fraught. Even beyond coronavirus, that’s largely due to a Supreme Court ruling that grants birth parents “superior right” to parent a child, making the grandparent’s role more complicated to defend in court. “It used to be that most of my practice was divorce, but a growing percentage of my practice is now grandparent custody cases.”

For Debbie, matters took an unfortunate turn after she fell from a crate in the factory and injured her back. “Then the pain pills started for grandma,” Brundidge says, adding that when she began nodding off at the food stamps office, the children were placed with another relative. Nonetheless, Brundidge says Debbie did her best, given that most of her children were later incarcerated. “I recall her saying that it was better when her kids were in jail and that she always got very depressed when it got close for them to get out because then she had to worry about if they were going to die.” 

As Debbie fell deeper into her own addiction, her grandchildren began showing up to school without shoes. But when Heinrich’s clients end up failing at raising grandchildren (and many do), she reminds them that they’re not bad people — or even bad parents. “I try to give them permission to admit, ‘I can’t do this.’ ‘That’s okay,’ I tell them. ‘It doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person. It doesn’t mean that you don’t love your grandchild.’”