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America's opioid crisis means many grandparents are now raising their grandchildren

By Amy Morona, Washington Week digital content and social media producer

Kathleen Johnson said her late son Zak didn’t just walk.

He bounced.

His stride was so distinctive, people used to call him Tigger.

“When he walked, everyone knew him,” she said.

Zak was fun, compassionate, and kind, his mom said, racking up friends in activities like the local 4-H Club and wrestling. He lived large.

But like the more than 19 million people dealing with a substance abuse issue across the country, Zak was addicted to drugs. He got hooked after high school. Run-ins with the law followed. He lived with his parents, and despite the family’s best efforts to help him, he overdosed. The 27-year-old left behind a five-year-old son, Tristan, along with three siblings.

Kathleen and her grandson, TristanJohnson’s son died on her 60th birthday. Now, at 63, the retired Ohio educator is in the midst of a new chapter in her life as the legal guardian of her child’s child, one of the reported 2.5 million grandparents across America raising their grandchildren.

“Although data is limited, research shows parental substance use is the most common reason these grandfamilies come together to raise children who would otherwise go into foster care,” according to the nonprofit Generation United’s recent “Raising the children of the opioid epidemic: Solutions and support grandfamilies” report.

Johnson said Tristan’s mom isn’t involved in his daily life. But his grandmother is a constant presence, creating a life together filled with typical family activities -- trips to the local YMCA, playing with the family’s two dogs, and school conferences. But, sometimes, it feels different.

“Here's me at 60, sitting in the little kindergarten chair, having flashbacks myself of 'Oh my gosh, been here, done this four times,'” she said. “Now I'm doing this the fifth time. It's very different now.”

Parenting in the 21st century is one of the courses West Virginia State University offers through its Healthy Grandfamilies program. One in 14 kids in that state is reportedly the product of a “grandfamily.” Out of the 125 grandparents the group connected with from 2016 to 2018, nearly 85 percent reported their grandchildren are with them due to an adult child’s substance abuse struggle.

The initiative is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It aims to connect grandparents--and, in some cases, great grandparents--raising grandchildren with information and support.

One of their discussions centers on giving guidance on how to navigate a digital society filled with swipes, shares, and status updates. Program director Bonnie Dunn recalled one grandparent who leaned over during that conversation. 

She had a question.

“Bonnie, what’s an app?”

Dunn said when she tells people that anecdote about software programs, most tend to laugh.

“We think we're used to apps, we know what apps are,” Dunn said. “If you go back some generations, unless they have stayed up with technology, they don't know.”

A few weeks later, that same grandmother reached out to Dunn’s group for help. She was panicked. The FBI was on the woman’s doorstep, Dunn said, after her 12-year-old granddaughter posted explicit photos online.

“That's when it ceases to be funny when we realize the challenges these grandparents are facing in a world they are really not familiar with,” she said.

The world of unexpected full-time custody can also bring along unplanned expenses. It costs a reported $233,000, excluding college, to raise a child in the U.S. today.

Northeast Ohio resident Veronica Akers had planned to retire at age 62. But, now, she and her husband are responsible for two grandchildren under five.

It’s put the registered nurse’s future plans on hold.

“I know that children cost the most probably in high school,” the 55-year-old said. “I just don't see how I can retire if they're going to cost a lot.”

In Ohio, 22 percent of the nearly 100,000 grandparents who report having grandchildren living with them live in poverty, according to the most recent data provided by Grandfamilies.org. Nationwide, AARP reports that figure clocks in at 20 percent.

Grandfamilies’ Dunn said she’s known two grandparents who have lost their cars due to the financial pressures. Roughly a third of grandparents who have completed her program reported an annual income between $10,000 to $25,000.

Another challenge is navigating the legal system and custodial agreements. A law in New Hampshire, one of the states hit hardest by the opioid epidemic, now gives preference to grandparents in custody cases related to the opioid crisis, according to the Concord Monitor.

In Pennsylvania, recent legislation allows grandparents to get temporary guardianship in three-month increments for a period of up to one year. Parental rights are still protected.

Maintaining hope regarding those relationships is important to Akers. Every day, she said, she says a prayer, asking for her grandkids’ parents to recover from their drug addictions to again become a daily presence in their children's lives. 

“You can't help but examine how you raised your own children and wonder if you should have done something differently,” she said. “In the end, you do start to realize they make their own choices.”

As for Johnson, she said she has found support through other women going through similar situations. About a dozen of them pack around a table at a local Chinese restaurant, answering questions posed by a facilitator and sharing stories.

“We meet once a month,” she said. “I wish it was more. Just us grandmas.”

But sometimes, they make exceptions to that rule, hosting excursions with their grandchildren.

“We'll do group things together, picnics, outings, so my grandson can be with other kids who do not have their parents either,” she said. “It's nice for him.”

Similar groups have popped up nationwide at places like churches and libraries. Johnson said it’s that type of support that has helped her forge ahead with Tristan and their new life together.

“I’m loving my grandson, and that seems to be the best formula for him,” she said. “What I've learned to fall back on is to have a sense of humor and have fun with him so that he can learn to take things a little lighter.”