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The rise of 'grandfamilies': Opioid crisis requires more Hoosier grandparents to raise children

Trend places burden on couples, but also provides 'such joy'

  • 9 min to read
Grandparents raising grandchildren

Bill and Monica Slonaker have become the day-to-day guardians of their two granddaughters, Izabella and Sopheira Winterroad. The family poses at Highland Park in Kokomo on August 30, 2017. Kelly Lafferty Gerber | Kokomo Tribune

KOKOMO – Monica Slonaker, a Kokomo resident, knows well the challenges faced by grandparents thrust back into the role of day-to-day caregiver; it’s been roughly three-and-a-half years since she took in her own grandchildren.

The two girls, her son’s daughters, now ages 3 and 7, were recently adopted by Slonaker and her husband, Bill – a situation, driven by opioid and alcohol abuse, that’s become commonplace across Indiana.

When the youngest girl, Izabella, was four months old, Slonaker’s son and the girls’ mother lived in Johnson County, their lives compromised by drugs and alcohol. The lifestyle had already required intervention from the Indiana Department of Child Services.

Grandparents raising grandchildren

Bill Slonaker supervises his two granddaughters, Izabella and Sopheira Winterroad, as Izabella ascends a climbing wall at Highland Park in Kokomo on August 30, 2017. The Slonakers have taken over as day-to-day guardians of their grandchildren. Kelly Lafferty Gerber | Kokomo Tribune

Then, one day, the mother showed up, dropped off the girls and “pretty much left them,” said Monica.

Overall, the girls’ mother has five daughters, four of whom tested positive for methadone at birth. One of them, the seven-year-old Sopheira was in the hospital for 21 days before making a full recovery.

And since the girls were dropped off at Slonaker’s home, the judicial system has determined that their father – Slonaker’s son, who suffers from alcoholism – and mother are not fit to maintain custody.

Adoption was determined to be the best option. Needless to say, it has changed the Slonakers’ lives.

Already with four adult children, Bill and Monica, now in their 50s, have experienced a drastic shift in their financial planning.

Bill’s retirement age has been pushed back, money planned to fix up an old home has been pulled and trips have been set aside.

“There’s just been a lot of things that we’ve had to put on hold,” she said, noting that they’ve already begun planning for college funds. “Every extra bit that we have goes to them. And what we don’t have goes to them.”

Not that they’d change a thing.

“We are so blessed,” she said. “I have never laughed so much in my life as I do now, because they are such a joy.

Grandparents raising grandchildren

Monica Slonaker grabs her granddaughter Izabella Winterroad as she climbs up the slide the same time older sister Sopheira Winterroad slides down at Highland Park in Kokomo on August 30, 2017. The Slonakers have taken over as day-to-day guardians of their grandchildren. Kelly Lafferty Gerber | Kokomo Tribune

“Having it to do over again, being able to recognize what is most important – my health is pretty bad and it’s never going to get better, it’s going to get worse, but I don’t have the opportunity to just lay in bed and waste away and whine about it. I’ve got get up at 6 o’clock every morning and that’s a very good thing for me.”

Slonaker has since went back to college for a Human Services degree and is applying to do volunteer work across the community – motivation she credits to her granddaughters.

It’s a complex role – complete with financial concerns, health struggles, experience and joy – that’s become increasingly common across Indiana.

A story of numbers

It’s no secret that a rise in grandfamilies has coincided with the ongoing drug epidemic.

As more children are removed from their parents’ homes, more kinship placement situations arise. And grandparents or other relatives often serve as the first choice for DCS officials.

In fact, over 110,000 Hoosier children under 18 live in homes where the householders are grandparents, according to 2017 statistics provided by the AARP, Children's Defense Fund, American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law and others. That constitutes 7 percent of the state’s children.

In conjunction, more than 60,000 grandparents are householders responsible for their grandchildren, and nearly 20 percent of those grandparents are in poverty. Twenty-seven percent have a disability. 

Those figures have jumped dramatically in the last decade. 

In 2007, roughly 81,500 children lived in grandparent-headed households, or 5.2 percent of children in the state, according to statics from the same agencies, and around 48,000 grandparents reported that they were responsible for the grandchildren living with them. Twelve percent of grandparents lived in poverty. 

Other statistics show clearly the impact substance abuse had on Indiana’s children.

In 2016, 52 percent of children removed from a home by the Indiana Department of Child Services were removed due to parent drug and/or alcohol abuse, up from 48 percent the previous year, according to the 2017 Indiana Youth Institute's Kids Count data book. 

In conjunction the number of children and families served by DCS has doubled since 2012, according to James Wide, deputy director of communications at the Indiana DCS.

In testimony this March before the United States Senate Special Committee on Aging, Jaia Peterson Lent, deputy executive director of Generations United, a Washington-based advocacy group, said that while “grandparents have been called upon to raise children for many reasons over the years, the current opioid and heroin epidemic is overwhelming many families and child welfare systems.”

Overall, more than 2.6 million grandparents are raising their grandchildren across the United States.

Lent added that “grandparents who are able to step in to protect and care for their grandchildren and keep them out of the child welfare system are, in a sense, punished for this critical and loving act,” explaining that grandparents raising children outside of foster care are less likely to receive “crucial supports and benefits.”

More benefits are important, she said, because despite the challenges faced by grandparents, research shows that placing children with grandparents or other relatives: reinforces safety, stability and well-being; reduces trauma; reinforces child’s sense of identity; helps keeps brothers and sisters together; honors family and cultural ties; and increases the likelihood of having a permanent home.

Howard County Coroner Steve Seele also addressed the issue during an Addiction Impact Panel, presented by the Howard County Adult Probation Department, at the Kokomo Family YMCA on Aug. 14.

“Last week, I dealt for almost two hours with a grandmother that’s 80 years old raising a 4 and a 5 year old because she lost her daughter and her granddaughter to overdoses,” he said.

“The destruction and the pathway that it leaves – I’ve talked to parents, I’ve talked to grandparents, they’ve depleted their retirement funds, people that planned to retire or had retired that have returned to work because they have grandchildren to raise. Just daily, I deal with that.”

The CASA perspective

Katina Silver, director of the CASA, or Court Appointed Special Advocate, program in Howard County, explained that grandparents have for decades filled the parenting void for young children.

But with the opioid and addiction epidemic increasing the number of kids in the system, she said, more grandparents than ever are embarking on a second parenting journey.

“DCS has always tried to place [kids] with a relative, so I’ve always consistently seen kids go with their grandparents,” said Silver, who has been with Howard County CASA, for which Slonaker is a volunteer, for 19 years. “But now we have more kids than ever because of the drug problem, so, yes, we have more kids now with grandparents due to the drug issues.”

It can be difficult, she noted, for grandparents to adjust from the common role of loving, doting grandpa or grandma to that of a stable day-to-day guardian.

And it can be a role change that isn’t always consciously addressed.   

“You have to set limits, you have to discipline, you have to do the parental stuff,” she said.

“It’s not really something [grandparents] mention. I don’t think that they necessarily are aware of it initially, until someone kind of points it out to them.”

Another issue is the newfound financial strain for people who are often nearing or already into retirement. Many live on a fixed income. And almost none of them are prepared for one or multiple mouths to feed.

A Day in the Life of a Foster Child

Katina Silver, director of CASA in Howard County, said the agency is being heavily impacted by the ongoing drug epidemic. Kelly Lafferty Gerber | Kokomo Tribune

It’s a situation that is exacerbated by the lack of resources available to grandparents who now serve as primary caregivers, noted Silver.

“They’re not foster parents, so they’re not being paid to keep their grandchildren, so they have to pay for everything that child needs other than medical, because they get Medicaid because they’re wards of the state,” she said.

Ultimately, explained Silver, a subsidy is provided to grandparents if parental rights are terminated and they decide to adopt. But if grandparents instead choose a guardianship, financial assistance is not available. 

This has led to a higher number of adoptions by grandparents, even if the available resources are still slim.

“There’s not a lot support for grandparents. For foster parents, whoever they’re licensed through, they have support systems. But grandparents, they do not have those outside support systems,” she said.

Echoing many of Silver’s comments was Annette Craycraft, executive director of East Central Indiana CASA, based out of Anderson.

Because of a lack of foster parents, said Craycraft, grandparents have become especially relied-upon by the state system, some of whom are in their 40s, others who stretch into their 80s and 90s.

“Some of them are very happy to do it, some of them do it because they feel like they have to because they don’t want to see their grandkids enter the system,” she said.

There are situations, however, where grandparents aren’t viable placements because they too had substantiated allegations filed against them, creating a state of cyclical abuse or neglect.

Oftentimes this leads to great-grandparents opening up their home.

“I think the thing that is most odd is we are seeing more great-grandparents have placement instead of grandparents. This used to not be the case,” said Craycraft, highlighting one great-grandmother who worries about her physical and financial capacity to raise a child, but does not want to create another disruption, or change of placement, in the child’s life.

Regardless of whether a grandparent of great-grandparent is placed back into a parenting role, a difficult adjustment should be expected, one that can include changing social norms associated with raising a child.

One such example is safe sleep practices.

“When I was a child – I was born in the early 70s – back then they told you to lay your baby on the belly,” said Craycraft. “Now, they have you lay the baby on the back, and nothing in the crib, or you can’t lay the baby in the bed because they get suffocated if they get extra blankets around their mouth.

“That’s one example where if you have older grandparents, they think ‘Well I did fine with my kids. They survived.’ But the social norm just for even safe sleeping is different now,” she added.

And while Craycraft explained that there is a need for more foster parents, she said the state and federal philosophy leans toward kinship care or family placement, specifically involving grandparents.

So what’s needed? A group effort that includes aunts, uncles, cousins and more, said Craycraft.

“Letting the community know that – kind of like the ‘it takes a village’ mentality – when children enter the system, the whole family could help, and they could contact the child welfare department when that child is removed and say, ‘I would be willing to care for my niece or nephew or cousin’ or whomever.

“It doesn’t just have to be those grandparents.”

An intimate knowledge

Debbie Susan Bowman and her husband, Sam, know as well as anyone the impact drug abuse can have on a family, and a set of grandparents.

It was at 10 p.m. on April 24, 2014, when Debbie heard a pounding at the front door, an ominous sound that every parent dreads.

"Two policemen were standing at our front door. My heart sank. Now what?" writes Debbie in her book, "The Summer of Paintless Toenails," which details her and Sam's experience raising a grandson.

"I instinctively knew it had to be Zachary, our thirty-five-year-old son. We had been through so much over the years with Zachary and lately he had seemed more on edge than usual, like a caged animal, pacing and pawing."

In the house was Zachary's 18-month-old son. He would never see his father again.

Zachary died in a car crash that night, and it was later determined that drugs were in his system at the time of the accident. And while it's hard to tell the extent of the role those drugs played in his death, Debbie says she's "sure it played a part."

Sam and Debbie published the book earlier this year, which is about not only the story of raising their own grandchild, but also how grandparents across the country are tasked with supporting the most vulnerable of kids.

Debbie Bowman said the book’s name originated from that summer immediately after Zachary’s death, when she didn’t feel like getting out of bed or doing small things like painting her toes.

In the book, she and Sam Bowman describe their own “paintless toenail” periods.

For Sam Bowman, his period of “paintless toenails” came after the death of his young son, Christopher, in 1981. “So began the worst summer of my life, a summer of paintless toenails to be sure,” he said in the book.

By getting married, Sam and Debbie Bowman were combining two families with three children, seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Together, they’re raising Anthony and offering encouragement and advice for other grandparents raising their grandchildren.

In fact, it was soon after the accident that Debbie and Sam obtained guardianship over the now-four-year-old Anthony; as Debbie said: "He never left."

And life will never be the same.

"I couldn't put him in child care, so I just retired, and we've made it with some of our retirement and social security," she said. "It is a challenge to raise grandkids, and I have learned a lot in my research about it, but the rewards are just to know that you're keeping the child, who you have a bond with any way, you're keeping the child safe and happy and whole.

"And you're saving the next generation is what grandparents do when they raise grandchildren, because where would those kids be?"

Debbie, who commended the work foster parents do, said she believes kinship is a more effective way to raise a child.

That's not to say the typical struggles don't apply to grandparents. "It's re-parenting, and it's different than it was when we raised our kids, because everything in society has changed," explained Debbie.

But mistakes themselves, said Debbie, don't take away from what these grandparents have truly become: heroes.

"Our whole world was turned upside down when Zachary died," she said. "I like to say that grandparents raising grandchildren are heroes, and I'm including us in that, because we've sacrificed our own time, talents and treasure I say."

"But we wouldn't trade him."

George Myers can be reached at 765-454-8585, by email at george.myers@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @gpmyerskt.

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