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The New Caregivers

Grandparents fill gaps in drug-ravaged families

Mary Nunley with her great grand daughters McKinley and Brooklyn at their home, Opioids New Caregivers, AARP

Michael Friberg

Mary Nunley is raising her great-granddaughters, McKinley and Brooklyn. Their mother is addicted to heroin.

Pamela Livengood was happily embracing her status as a new grandmother when suddenly she became the primary caregiver for her daughter's 2-year-old son.

"It was quite an adjustment," said Livengood, 55, of Keene, N.H. "I wasn't ready to go back to changing diapers and getting up in the middle of the night. I thought all that was behind me. But my daughter and the baby's father got caught up in using opioids right after Francis was born. He needed me."


Renee Hicks and her grandchildren

Michael Rubenstein

Renee Hicks and her grandchildren Justice Price, 13, and Faith Price, 12.

In Maine, about 8 percent of babies are born to women who are addicted to opioids and other drugs, according to Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who chairs the Senate Special Committee on Aging. The number of children raised solely by grandparents in that state rose 24 percent between 2010 and 2015. Nationwide, more than 2.6 million people are raising grandkids, according to census data. That number is rising rapidly as more parents are jailed, are forced into treatment centers or die from overdoses, according to testimony at a recent aging committee hearing.

Families Overwhelmed

The epidemic "is overwhelming many families and child welfare systems," said Jaia Peterson Lent of Generations United, a Washington-based advocacy group cofounded by AARP, at a Special Committee on Aging hearing last March. "Suddenly [grandparents] are forced to navigate complex systems to help meet the … challenges of the children who come into their care, often after experiencing significant trauma."

Livengood said her daughter started using opioids to deal with pain from a difficult childbirth. Soon she and the baby's father were deep into addiction. "They both have been incarcerated," she said. "My daughter has been in a treatment program. They weren't in a position to care for Francis."

It's an all too common story across America.

In Pennsylvania, "103,000 children are in the care of grandparents or other relatives. Experts point to opioids as a major driver of the growth of that number," said Sen. Bob Casey (Pa.), the ranking Democrat on the Special Committee on Aging.

Mary Nunley, 73, of Cottonwood Heights, Utah, is caring for two great-granddaughters, 13-year-old McKinley and 10-year-old Brooklyn. "My granddaughter was involved with a lot of drugs and eventually became a heroin addict," Nunley said.

The children survived emotional and psychological trauma, Nunley said, including witnessing a suicide attempt by their mother. Nunley and her husband became the legal guardians of the children in late 2015. "We knew somebody had to stand up for those children," she said.

But in February her husband died, reducing Nunley's Social Security benefits from just over $1,000 a month for the couple to $781 for her. Utah provides $399 a month as a caregiver's stipend. "That helps. It buys shoes and a ticket to the movies now and then," she said. Nunley admits the strain of parenting school-age children while in her 70s can be exhausting. "You do it because you love them, and you want them to have a good life."


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Pam Cole and her daughter Arlana Strickland, Opioids AARP

Michael Rubenstein

Arlana Strickland, left, was addicted to prescription drugs so her mom, Pam Cole, right, helped raise her kids.

Limited Help

In May, Sens. Collins and Casey introduced a bill that would set up a task force to look for ways to help people raising grandchildren. But for now, there are few options for those seeking financial assistance. "It's a complicated issue, but at the federal level, there really isn't a lot of help for grandparents," said Donna Butts, the executive director of Generations United.

The National Family Caregiver Support Program allows states to funnel 10 percent of their grant money to people caring for grandkids. "That's a very small amount in most states," Butts said. Grandparents can also try to tap into Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, another federal program that gives grants to states to help families be self-sufficient.

State programs vary widely, according to Butts. Faith-based groups and other nonprofit organizations can help fill in some gaps. The website Grandfamilies.org, set up by Generations United, the American Bar Association and Casey Family Programs, lists help available to grandparents in each state, as well as state laws and custody rules. But even with some assistance, taking on grandchildren from a drug-addicted parent can be a frightening roller coaster.

"When I took over, they had no shoes, no car seats; it was like I was starting over."

Renee Hicks, 54, on raising her grandchildren because of her daughter's drug addiction

Pamela Cole, 60, of Mansfield, Ohio, has cared for grandchildren Joey, 14, and Braylen, 4, for most of their lives, beginning when her daughter Arlana was jailed for hitting a parked car while on opiates. Cole's husband shared the job until he died in 2014. More than once, Arlana has been rushed to the hospital with drug problems. "Once I found her slumped over my computer. They weren't sure she was going to make it that time," Cole said. She's grateful her daughter is doing well in treatment and is now a bigger part of the children's lives.

Renee Hicks, 54, also from Mansfield, has raised two grandchildren, Justice, 13, and Faith, 12, while waging a battle with cancer. "When I took over, they had no shoes, no car seats; it was like I was starting over."

Hicks said her daughter Amanda Price, 32, is now drug-free after years in and out of jail and drug treatment. But Hicks remains the children's legal guardian. "Their bonding was with me," she said. Hicks said her cancer is in remission—after she was given a year to live by doctors in 2011. "Miracles do happen. I've survived," she said. "And I give Faith and Justice credit for that. They gave me a reason to keep fighting."

The Opioid Menace

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