Opinion

Grandparents raising grandchildren

The crisis of opioid abuse that is ravaging our state and our country is truly an epidemic. There were 376 deaths from drug overdose here in Maine last year, more than 52,000 nationwide — numbers that exceed the lives lost to car accidents, breast cancer, or a host of other causes.

Those statistics are shocking. Here is one that is heartbreaking: last year, nearly 1,000 babies in Maine — that’s about 8 percent of all births — were born to women addicted to opioids and other drugs. In the United States, a baby is born with an opioid addiction every 25 minutes, more than two per hour.

In this crisis, as in past crises, grandparents are coming to the rescue. Grandparents who help raise grandkids together with the child’s parents can support healthy aging and be a positive experience for all involved. Across the country, however, some 2.5 million children are being raised solely by grandparents. These “custodial grandparents” are called on to help for a number of reasons, including alcohol and drug addiction, physical abuse, incarceration, divorce, financial difficulties, military deployment, and even death.

In Maine, the number of children being raised solely by their grandparents increased by 24 percent between 2010 and 2015.

The Senate Aging Committee, which I chair, recently held a hearing on the growing phenomenon of grandparents raising grandchildren because the parents are struggling with addiction and can no longer care for their children. The purpose of our hearing was to recognize the grandparents raising grandkids and to explore what can be done to assist them as they take on this unanticipated challenge motivated by their love of their grandchildren.

As one of our expert witnesses testified, from crack cocaine in the 1980s to opioids today, drug addiction by one or both parents is one of the primary causes of these “grandfamilies.” Also among our witnesses was Bette Hoxie, executive director of Adoptive and Foster Families of Maine and the Kinship Program, which has offices in Orono and Saco. Of the 3,100 families Bette’s organization works with statewide, 85 percent are headed by grandparents or great-grandparents, many due to opioid abuse. From health care to clothing and cribs, she told the Committee of the struggles grandparents – including herself – face in the unexpected challenge of raising young children.

At a time in life when most seniors are looking forward to enjoying more leisure time, these grandparents have found themselves as parents once again. They are waking up in the middle of the night to feed babies and planning afternoons around soccer practice, rather than playing golf or volunteering.

Raising a second family also involves costs that they had never anticipated as they budgeted for what was supposed to be their golden years. They are tapping into retirement savings, going back to work, or staying in the workforce longer just to make ends meet. In addition to the financial toll, raising children later in life presents social, emotional, legal, and other challenges. It can be socially difficult to become a full-time caregiver as an older adult, often isolated from friends. It can be emotionally difficult to go from being a grandmother who spoils the kids to becoming the disciplinarian who makes sure homework is finished.

At the same time, it can also be difficult to navigate the relationship with the children’s birth parents. The legal challenges are tough. The process of attaining custody is complex, lengthy, and costly. Without a proper legal arrangement, routine tasks such as enrolling kids in school or obtaining medical care can be trying.

Becoming a full-time caregiver can also take a toll on the health of the grandparents. The new caregiver role challenges both the physical and mental health of grandparents resulting in higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, and depression.

This demonstration of love by family members must be accompanied by innovative policy solutions. Some of those solutions were included in the 21st Century Cures Act that was signed into law late last year. In addition to robust support for biomedical research to combat disease, this sweeping bipartisan law includes provisions I authored to address the opioid crisis. The bill includes $1 billion over two years for grants to states to supplement opioid abuse prevention and treatment activities, including prescription drug monitoring programs, prevention activities, training for health care providers, and improving access to opioid treatment programs. This money will benefit every state, including Maine.

Last summer, the Senate passed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, or CARA, which I cosponsored. This legislation will help address this burgeoning public health crisis through a multifaceted approach that expands treatment, prevention, law enforcement, and recovery efforts in our communities nationwide. It includes two important provisions I authored to increase research into non-opioid therapy for pain management and for the development of care plans for drug-dependent infants.

Despite the challenges, when asked if they regret taking on the caregiver role, a vast majority of these grandparents say “no.” They know they are making a difference. They are providing love, stability, and a home to children who might otherwise have to live with strangers. As one Maine grandparent said in a recent television interview, “In the end, it’s worth it to know that they are happy and safe.”

Throughout history, grandparents have stepped in to provide safe and secure homes to their grandchildren, replacing traumatic pasts with loving and hopeful futures. The opioid crisis has called on grandparents in epic numbers. As a society, it is essential that we do all we can to help those grandparents who have stepped up to help ensure a better life for their children’s children.

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