On the long, hush, quiet drives up from Harrisburg to Williamsport’s Penn State campus, Phyllis Dew and her daughter took advantage of the calm by discussing the newly minted freshman’s wishes for a career in the culinary arts. That conversation took place over a decade ago. Dew’s daughter never finished her first semester of college. Dreams of a culinary career faded.
During her brief months in college, Dew’s daughter became addicted to opioids. She had developed the drug habit after being around other college students who were users.
“I had no idea Williamsport had a drug issue,” Dew reflects.
With a boorish appetite, the opioid epidemic continues to eat away at the nation. Its victims run the gamut — male, female, black, white, wealthy or poor.
In 2017, more than 5,600 Pennsylvanians died of drug overdoses. Some 100,000 kids within our state are in the care of their grandparents; a significant portion of those are due to their parents’ addiction problems. The older Pennsylvanians who take in their children’s children get virtually no state assistance to help with this caregiving.
Dew’s daughter became pregnant as the result of a rape; she had the baby. Dew, who worked as a social worker for agencies, became one of the estimated 82,000 grandparents in Pennsylvania to raise her own grandchild in the opioid epidemic. She eventually adopted her grandson when he was 7.
Much-needed help for grandparents
There is little doubt that having grandparents raise their grandchildren is better than the kids going into the foster care system. Children get sense of permanence and stability living with family members. Economically, it saves the state about $1 billion per year, according to State Representative Eddie Day Pashinski (D-Luzerne). But it is far from an easy road. According to a September 2017 Psychology Today article, grandparents who take custody of their grandkids are more likely to be poor, less likely to be employed, and more likely to have physical disabilities and chronic health problems.
State Representative Kathy Watson (R-Bucks), who chaired the House Children and Youth Committee for five years, says grandparents are reluctant to seek help. She adds that, “Many have no idea how our society changes” between what parenting looks like now and what it looked like when they were raising their children.
Watson, who chose not to run for re-election this year due to family concerns, says that she watched her constituents struggle under the weight of addiction. To help this older generation now raising their grandkids, she introduced the Kinship Caregiver Navigator bill to provide a one-stop-shop for vital information; the bill makes available local, state and federal resources as well as information on childcare, health care and schooling. It’s accessible via the internet and, for those grandparents who aren’t comfortable navigating a website, via a toll-free number as well. Governor Wolf signed it into law in October 2018.
The governor also signed into law a bill spearheaded by Rep. Pashinski, who chairs the House Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee. Called Grandparents Raising Grandchildren, the legislation grants temporary guardianship to grandparents or other adult family members when parents are unable to care their child due to alcohol or opioid abuse issues. The bill gives authority to grandparents while also protecting the parental rights of the parents.
Angela M. Liddle, CEO and president of Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance, an advocacy group to protect children from neglect and abuse, praises the bipartisan legislative action by lawmakers. “Lawmakers not only listened, they acted and passed two new measures that provide a measure of relief to grandfamilies in these complex situations,” she says.
Liddle’s fight for families fighting against addiction is partially grounded in her own childhood.
“I became interested in working with families because I was born into one in the mid-1960s that had many challenges — alcohol addiction, mental illness and domestic violence,” Liddle says. “I vividly recall being 3 or 4 years old and having an awareness that something was terribly wrong in my family.”
The challenges facing grandchildren
Daniel Marrow, M.S., a senior psychotherapist at Geisinger Holy Spirit Behavioral Health, has served his young patients with care and respect for more than 20 years. He explains that the children he sees — whose parents are dealing with addiction — may struggle with anxiety. They can find themselves stigmatized in school and also become the targets of bullies. Additionally, these children are more likely to be exposed earlier to negative behaviors of sex, violence and drugs than students whose parents are not living with addiction.
Unfortunately, children born to mothers living with addiction have their own battles to fight. Opioids or other drugs like marijuana and alcohol can pass from a pregnant mom to their unborn child. As a result, babies born to mothers who use have neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). According to Stanford Children’s Health, the symptoms of NAS include tremors, high-pitched crying, poor feeding and sucking, sweating and sleep problems.
Joanne Clough is an attorney in Camp Hill as well as a grandmother busy raising her young granddaughter, Carter. The toddler is infatuated with Disney characters and trick-or-treated as Elsa from “Frozen.” Joanne’s daughter Emily died of a fentanyl overdose when she was 22; she was found dead in her car in the parking lot of the Starbucks across from the Harrisburg Mall.
Clough recalls the countless days when her bright-eyed, ambitious daughter would transform into a violent person under the weight of addiction. In these instances, Clough was forced to call law enforcement on her daughter.
Often, Clough will read Emily’s journal, which details just how she slipped into addiction. It started with exposure as Emily watched her boyfriend (Carter’s father) using heroin. Eventually, he encouraged Emily to use the drug.
“My daughter hated needles,” Clough says. But at her lowest point of addiction, Emily was shooting up more than 20 bags of heroin daily.
While they juggle careers and raising another generation of children, grandparents like Clough and Dew are working to raise awareness of the opioid epidemic in our state. Even corporations are getting in on the fight. Aetna Better Health of Pennsylvania has partnered with the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency to bring preventive and supportive programs to early childhood programs in Harrisburg.
By the grace of God, Phyllis Dew says, she recently received a phone call from her daughter. Now in her mid-40s, the woman wanted to speak with her mother and check in on her teenage son. She told Phyllis that she is back in school and working toward becoming a counselor.
Dew admits that her daughter doesn’t have the best track record for honesty. She may not actually be in school; it is difficult to know for sure. And so Dew, like some 82,000 other grandparents within Pennsylvania, continues to raise her grandchild.
Jamar Thrasher is a Pennsylvania-based writer and the owner of a public relations agency. You can follow his blog, Notes on parenting, at CentralPennParent.com.