Drug epidemic changing family dynamics

One of the benefits of being a grandparent, so it’s said, is you can spoil your grandchildren and then send them home to their parents.

Unfortunately — for a growing number of grandparents — home for those children might be the second floor or extra bedroom of their own home due to adult children becoming statistics in the opioid epidemic growing in Lycoming County and in the country.

There are times that relatives, particularly grandparents, step in and serve as substitute parents until the parents are able, if possible, to return to that role in the family. Sometimes that role is on an informal basis.

“Really, when we look at relatives, as well as grandparents that step into this situation, we get a lot of referrals that come in. A lot of our situations never go into our formal system,” according to Matt Salvatori, clinical supervisor at Lycoming County Children and Youth.

“They might come into our assessment unit and from our assessment unit we work with them on a short-term informal basis. Grandparents and aunts step in and they’re very good people, and in my mind there’s no need for a formal system, telling them what to do,” he added.

He said it could be a relative who is struggling with substance abuse, so a grandparent or aunt or another family member steps in to help care

for the children. The role of the agency then becomes one of guiding them to find the services to help them.

“Our goal is for family to take care of family,” he said.

Foster care: ‘Family first’

“Then there is the formal system part, where we might have to come in and request through the court to take emergency custody and the children go into foster care,” Salvatori said. “With that there’s a lot of different regulations that have changed over the last 15 years, where it requires us to look for family.”

In traditional foster care, an individual would come to the agency and say that they want to be a foster parent and then be trained to do that.

“When we place a child in foster care, the first things we’re asking, ‘Is there grandma, grandpop, are there aunts, uncles?’ ‘Is there anyone who has a pre-existing relationship to the child?’ We want to place them with that individual. When we do that, we do what we call mercy care. We make them our foster parents. That is the formal part of the system. The child is in our custody, but we make them (the relative) a foster parent because of safety reasons. We place children in foster care because of safety reasons,” he said.

“Our goal, regardless of formal foster care, is we want to work with that family, to use their resources to take care of their ‘children’ in a safe environment. The majority of cases that come through our doors for very serious situations get resolved because we have in our community wonderful grandparents, aunts, uncles that step in and take care of their family members. So, we might just have short intervention involvement.”

Of the 53 kids presently in foster care in Lycoming County, Salvatori noted 25 percent are being cared for by kinship or family members.

“If they come into our system we are always working for family first. That’s a requirement. The courts require it. Who would want, what I call stranger care? It’s pretty hard for a 5-year-old just to go to a home, whether it’s your home or my home. That’s pretty traumatic when you’re removed from your parents,” he said. “Whether we’re involved for two years or three months, we’re always looking for family.”

Numbers rise with opioids

According to Salvatori there has been an increase in the number of grandparents, or other family members, taking care of dependent children due to the opioid epidemic in this area.

“About 70 percent of our cases are impacted by substance abuse by parents,” he said. “The majority of our reports that come into our agency because of abuse and neglect — the underlying issue is substance abuse.”

“It might come in for lack of supervision, but the underlying crutch of this … 60 to 70 percent is because of substance abuse. This correlates why over the last 10 years there’s such an increase in grandparents, or relatives, or I say kinship having to care for them. Quite honestly, the majority does fall to grandparents,” he said.

Last year it was estimated that 2.6 million grandparents nationwide were raising their grandchildren. Of those, about 1/5 fell beneath the poverty level.

Recently a bi-partisan bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, passed both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives and became law. The bill establishes the Supporting Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Act.

The goal is to help grandparents get easy access to resources and services to help them in raising their grandchildren.

“This law will provide grandparents in Pennsylvania and across the nation, with easy access to helpful resources,” Casey said. “These grandparents, some of which have stepped in to raise their grandchildren due to the opioid crisis, are faced with unique challenges such as delaying retirement, bridging the generational divide and working through the court system to secure custody,”

Bridging the divide

For older citizens who suddenly find themselves having to learn to navigate the systems that revolve around raising young children, the task can be intimidating. A lot has changed since their child-rearing years, particularly in the school systems and trying to understand a new generation in a technologically centered age can be daunting.

In addition, grandparents in their new role as “custodial caretakers” still are parents of an adult child who has been affected by drug addiction. Their child could be still struggling with their addiction, in rehab, incarcerated, or in some cases, deceased. The emotional toll for the grandparents from the changes in their life situations can be immense.

“They’ve gone through their whole life, raised them and then suddenly they’re dealing with some of the challenges which grandparents run into. They could still be working or they could be retired and they’re dealing with instantly taking maybe three or four kids into their home, which they want to obviously, but then they’re juggling their own child with the substance abuse issue and a lot of times that takes a while to get better. It puts them in a difficult situation,” Salvatori said. “We’re very fortunate in Lycoming County that we have a lot of great grandparents that step up and take care of the kids and keep them out of formal foster care.”

He noted a number of services exist to help caregivers.

“We provide a lot of outreach services … Maybe a grandparent is caring for a grandchild and they’re struggling with parenting or connecting to resources. There are services out there like what I call our in-home or community support in-home outreach services,” he said.

“Society has changed so much. They face the issues of their grandchildren having to see their parent no longer being there. There’s a lot of emotional issues, so they’re navigating the system from a mental health standpoint. Maybe there’s disabilities from an early intervention-type thing, navigating assistance offices, the school aspect of it, There’s just a lot they haven’t done in 20 years,” Salvatori said.

Salvatori noted that a lot of times when someone goes into rehab or is incarcerated, their parents have to deal with their care and the maintenance of their home or apartment while they’re away.

Financial struggle

Grandparents who struggle financially, often seek assistance at the city’s American Rescue Workers.

According to Cleveland Way, director of the group’s social service office, there really is no way of knowing definitively if someone is seeking extra help because of the impact of the opioid crisis.

“Part of what is going on, is like in a food pantry, someone will come in and say, ‘I have to add a couple people to my household,’ but they won’t give a reason why,” he said.

“There has been an increase in individuals adding to their family size over the past two months. Maybe about a 6 percent increase or 20 families have had an increase in family size. I have also had a couple of families who have said they have had to move into their child’s or siblings’ home to take over because they were no longer there and the bills have started to pile up,” he added.

Way said two grandparents on fixed incomes came to his office recently, saying they each had four additional mouths to feed in their households. And three were children.

“It’s not for us to ask questions as long as they can prove that these children are living in the home, we will provide food for them,” he said.

And that’s not easy for retirees living on a fixed income.

“The average invidual who is on a fixed income is getting $720 a month. There are some that are in a higher bracket, but the average of those individuals I see are at $720. Their rent is somewhere between $450 and $550 a month.”

In order to be able to survive on that amount, Way said they use services the American Rescue Workers’ provide. In addition, they might have food stamps and the services provided by the county.

“If we did not exist, those individuals would be a lot more hunger-stricken,” he said.