As Parents Struggle with Addiction, Grandparents Step In

By Britni de la Cretaz 01/15/17

The children may carry guilt that somehow it’s their fault that their parents are addicted to drugs, or wonder why their parents can’t “just stop.”

An older hand holding a child's hand.
Who helps the grandparents?

Angela Cimino’s house in Nashua, New Hampshire is never quiet, always filled with the noises of childhood. Despite her own children being mostly grown (her 17-year-old still lives with her), there are four small people in her home that she has to care for: ages 3, 5, 9, and 12. At a time in her life when she thought she would be preparing to have more time for herself than ever, while her friends enjoy girls’ nights out and impromptu trips to Aruba, she is starting all over. “I’m standing here in the food pantry line. I’m not going to Aruba any time soon,” she says.

Cimino, 44, is one of the millions of people who have found themselves raising their grandchildren because their own child is struggling with drug addiction. In recent years, thanks to the opioid epidemic that is sweeping the nation, the number of children being cared for by their grandparents has increased dramatically, with estimates putting the number at 2.9 million according to PBS. Cimino says she adopted the older two children five years ago (their father, Cimino’s cousin, died of an overdose this past June), and she has been caring for the two younger children, who are her son’s kids, for three-and-a-half years. In the time since she took her grandchildren in, their mother died of an overdose and their father is now incarcerated for drug offenses. Cimino has legal custody of her grandchildren.

While grandparents have been raising grandchildren due to their children’s drug problems for generations (during the crack epidemic in the 1980s and the methamphetamine-fueled early 2000s, for instance), there has “absolutely been an increase” in recent years, says Jerry Moe, MA, the National Director of Children’s Programs at the Betty Ford Center. According to the Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health, in 2015, two million people met the criteria for abusing prescription opiates and 600,000 heroin users met the diagnostic criteria for substance use disorder. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 78 people die of an overdose every day in the United States. Since federal law requires that states try to place children with relatives in order to receive foster care and adoption assistance, grandparents are often the first choice.

Cathy M. and her husband in Garland, Texas, had to become licensed foster parents in order to be granted custody of their grandchildren. Cathy and her husband have been raising their four grandchildren—ages 6, 8, 10, and 12—for the past three-and-a-half years after Child Protective Services removed the kids from their home due to Cathy’s son and daughter-in-law’s heroin addiction. After their parents kept relapsing, Cathy, 57, says they were granted permanent custody of the children, though parental rights were not terminated.

For these grandparents, the challenges are many. They are not just raising children—they’re raising trauma-exposed children, which may present an entirely different experience than they had the first time around. According to Jerry Moe, it’s not uncommon for these children to be worrying about whether their parents are okay. They may have trouble concentrating, have nightmares, or high levels of stress. Many of them have had to grow up more quickly than their peers, or have experienced or seen things that kids their age shouldn’t have. They may also carry guilt that somehow it’s their fault that their parents are addicted to drugs, or wonder why their parents can’t “just stop.” For Cathy, she says that the biggest challenge for her is “the anger that the kids have at their parents that they misdirect at the caretakers.”

Compounding this stress is the worry that these grandparents have for their own children. Anne McLean of Lynn, Massachusetts has been raising her five-year-old granddaughter for a little over three years due to her daughter’s heroin addiction. “It’s hard for me as [my daughter] Courtney’s mom because I’m concerned about her and her well being,” she says. “But now [my granddaughter] is my priority because she’s younger and needs me, where Courtney is making her own choices.” Like the other grandparents I spoke to, McLean, 54, struggles to find a balance when it comes to keeping her granddaughter safe and allowing her to see her mother. “I try to facilitate visits when I feel it’s safe and I keep them on the phone as much as possible,” she says.

Cathy and her husband allow their son and daughter-in-law to see their children whenever they want, though they’re only required by their custody agreement to allow supervised visitation twice per week. “I’m a bit of an enabler,” Cathy admits, explaining that while she has set times that they can come for visits, the couple often shows up outside of those times and she does not object. This, of course, is because addiction is a family disease. Everyone I spoke to mentioned this fact; addiction does not just affect the person struggling. In some cases, there are multigenerational struggles. “Sometimes it’s not just the parents that are fighting addiction, but the grandparents, too,” Moe says. McLean says her husband is addicted to substances too; no one knows where he is and he’s been gone a long time. Cimino’s mother was a heroin addict; she found her dead when she was 17, which is why she said she was “familiar with the signs” when her son began using.

And despite the scope of the problem, which is not new, there are a lack of services for grandparents who are raising these grandchildren. Cathy says that while they were registered foster parents, they had access to a lot of resources. “But once we got permanent custody, we were out of the [foster] system and we lost all those resources,” she laments. According to Generations United, 21% of grandparents caring for grandchildren are living below the poverty line. Cimino has found herself on public assistance for the first time in her life, as she has to stay home and take care of her granddaughter, who has cystic fibrosis. And while states like Louisiana and New Mexico have passed bills to help grandparents in these situations, other states like Massachusetts, Illinois, and Georgia have bills lingering, waiting to be voted on. Most states are not doing nearly enough to address the issue or provide assistance to these families.

Also in short supply are services for the children. At Moe’s program, which has locations in California, Texas, and Colorado, they provide four days of intensive programming and then continuing care on a weekly basis for both children and their families, but it’s one of the few programs of its kind in the U.S. Cathy says she wishes her grandchildren had more access to kids who were in the same situation as they are so they don’t feel so alone.

And every family must face the difficult task of deciding what to tell the kids about where their parents are. “I don’t tell her [her mom is] homeless and I don’t say she’s living on the street,” says McLean. “I say she’s staying somewhere and trying to get better so she can come back and be her mom again.”

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Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, baseball enthusiast, and recovered alcoholic living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.