Legislation introduced in the U.S. Senate aims to form a plan to help grandparents raising grandchildren, a trend on the rise amid the ongoing nationwide opioid and heroin epidemic.

Introduced by Pennsylvania Democrat Bob Casey and Maine Republican Susan Collins, chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, the Supporting Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Act would create a federal task force.

The task force would inform grandparents on issues they encounter when unexpectedly returned to a parenting role: navigating the school system, addressing mental health issues and seeking out social and support networks.

Members would include the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Attorney General among other experts. They would be required to produce reports to Congress on their findings both about best practices to support grandparents and any identified gaps in resource needs for grandparents raising grandchildren.

“The opioid crisis is not only straining families, communities, law enforcement and health care systems, but it also presents new challenges for older Americans,” Sen. Casey said. “As older Americans respond by stepping in to care for their grandchildren, this legislation is designed to say that you are not alone and that we have your back, with a focused federal effort to providing the information and supports grandparents need.”

An estimated 2.6 million children are being raised by grandparents, a number on the rise as a result of their parents’ heroin and opioid addictions, according to a 2016 report from Generations United, a family research and advocacy group.

Generations United found 2 in 5 foster care children were removed from their homes because of parental substance abuse. For every child in foster care placed with relatives, 20 others are being raised by relatives outside the foster care system, the group reports.

Glenda Bonetti, director of Northumberland County’s Drug and Alcohol Program, said assistance to grandparents who become primary caregivers for grandchildren in the current drug epidemic is “long overdue.”

Bonetti said she believes a stipend should be paid to help support these grandparents.

“Grandparents are putting aside their needs to raise them because they don’t want them in the system. However, they struggle because they become the ‘parent’ and not the grandparent who is to spoil them and send them home,” Bonetti said.

“According to Children and Youth, unless a person goes through formal kinship care, they are not financially compensated. Grandparents are using their retirement and other savings to raise these children,” she said.

The federal legislation was introduced Wednesday and referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. At the same time in the State Capitol in Harrisburg, Sen. Gene Yaw, R-23 Williamsport, led a forum hosted by The Center for Rural Pennsylvania on the topic.

The hearing addressed concerns about custody and social services along with the state’s “kinship care” law. Debbie Friday, of Indiana, Pa., testified a change to the existing law is needed to allow grandparents to receive foster care payments without becoming foster care parents or pursuing full custody through the courts.

Among the complexities, Friday said, are stringent foster care requirements, confusing legal hurdles, and reluctance among parents who don’t want to add to the friction within the family by suing their children for custody.

Brian Bornman, executive director of Pennsylvania Children and Youth Administrators, testified Wednesday and said grandparents caring for grandchildren, rather than foster care placement, saved upward of $39 billion annually nationwide.

“The benefit of grandparents providing care for their grandchildren should not be underestimated,” Bornman said during the hearing.

Email comments to escicchitano@dailyitem.com. Follow Scicchitano on Twitter @ericshick11.

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