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Opioid epidemic turns grandparents into primary caregivers

The national opioid epidemic is putting stress on extended families that are caring for the children of opioid-addicted parents, according to a report released Sunday by Generations United.

The number of children in foster care with extended families, or grandfamilies, has increased from 24 percent in 2008, to 29 percent in 2014, the report said. The opioid epidemic means more children are in foster care, but agencies involved in foster care have also contributed to the rise by focusing on families first before exploring other placement options.  

“We know that finding families for kids via kinship is a big trend in the field right now,” said Adam Pertman, president of the National Center on Adoption and Permanency and author of Adoption Nation.

“The big reason this is happening is because it appears to work. It’s not any sort of indictment against non-family members who step up to care for these kids,” said Pertman, who is not affiliated with Generations United. “People do feel at least initially more affinity to a child if it is their sister’s kid, as opposed to a child they’ve never heard of who is in foster care. It’s vital that we have both.”

Donna Butts is the executive director of Generations United, the policy organization that has published a yearly State of Grandfamilies in America report since 2014. She said that children placed with biological family members are more likely to stay close to their siblings, have fewer placements, and are more likely to report feeling loved.

“Children age out of the system but they don’t age out of a family,” Butts said.

Some children never even enter the foster care system. They are taken in by grandparents or members of their extended family without agency involvement. The number of children being raised by grandfamilies is difficult to track, but census data suggests that for every child living with a grandfamily within the system there are 20 in the same situation outside the system.

“Oftentimes the grandparents or relatives are there in an emergency,” Butts said. “The parent may drop the child off and never come back. The grandparent may go and rescue them.”

Most often, children placed with grandfamilies end up being raised by their grandparents, Butts said. According to the study, more than 2.6 million grandparents were serving as primary caregivers for their grandchildren. Of these, 39 percent were over the age of 60. About 21 percent lived below the poverty line and 26 percent had a disability.

“There needs to be more services and supports for the families across the board,” Butts said. Grandfamilies inside the system have an easier time enrolling their children in school or getting healthcare for them. Grandfamilies outside the system may struggle.

“If they don’t have legal custody, if they don’t have any proof that they have a caregiver relationship with their child, it is more difficult,” Butts said.

The report put forth six recommendations to help families get access to services and support, including providing legal options for grandfamilies and ensuring grandfamilies can access financial assistance.

“It's only a little over 20 percent of the families that access TANF, Temporary Assistance for Needy Familis, whereas the majority of the families would qualify,” Butts said. “They oftentimes don't access things that they really need for the grandchild.”

Even with the current focus on family-based placements, getting custody of a child who lives across state lines can be challenging.

“Adoption law is state law, there are 50 states with 50 sets of laws plus the District of Columbia,” Pertman said. “One of the things that the field generally has been working on for years is trying to lower those barriers to get across those state lines for the sake of a child.”

Other efforts are focused on helping children before they reach the foster care system. The Family First Prevention Services Act of 2016 passed in the House of Representatives and is currently under consideration by the Senate Finance Committee.

“It includes a lot of our recommendations,” said Butts. “It basically would be the most significant overhaul of the childcare foster system in many years.”

The bill would amend the Foster Care and Adoption Assistance portion of the Social Security Act to provide mental-health and substance-abuse prevention treatment services and in-home parenting skills programs among other supports.

Butts said she believes policy reforms are needed not only to respond to the current epidemic but to be prepared for the future.

“The current epidemic is opioids and heroin, but in the past we've had crack cocaine, we've had meth. Alcohol has always been around. And we will have another in the future,” Butts said. “So we need to make sure we have the policies in place to support the relatives who will be called on to step in and raise the children.”