HARRISBURG — Four big hugs from Debbie Friday’s young grandchildren mark her arrival home after a 12-hour shift at her nursing job.
It’s a routine welcome for Friday and for the countless grandparents thrust into parenting roles as part of the opioid epidemic.
“Even in all the heartaches, pain and stressors, when I come home after 12 hours of work and walk through the door, (they) run into my arms and greet me with hugs and scream, ‘Grammy’s home,’” Friday told a panel of members from the Center for Rural Pennsylvania.
Friday, of Indiana, Pa., was among four speakers who testified Wednesday at the State Capitol about the challenges grandparents face as primary caregivers due to heroin and opioid abuse.
More relatives, especially grandparents, are raising children because of their parents’ addictions, according to a 2016 report from Generations United, a family research and advocacy group. The group found two in five 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.
Friday and her husband, both in their mid-50s, have been caring for their grandchildren, between ages 3 and 9, the last two years. Their daughter is in jail for a probation violation following an overdose last fall, she said, adding that the children’s fathers are out of the picture.
The Fridays both continue to work as retirement approaches, but instead of building a nest egg for two, they’re unexpectedly supporting a family of six.
Friday advocates for extending the definition of long-term rehabilitation beyond 28 days, a close look at the net effect criminal records can have on the lives of recovering addicts in seeking a job and housing and a change in Pennsylvania’s “kinship care” law.
For grandparents reluctant to become a formal foster parent or petition for full custody due to various complexities, not the least of which is suing their child in court, she seeks access to the same service available to parents: foster care payments, or “kinship pay,” along with subsidies for child care and food, legal help and community resources.
“We need you to re-look at the kinship pay,” Friday told the panel, which included state Sen. Gene Yaw, R-23, of Williamsport. “There should be no difference in programs — whether the children are involved with Children and Youth Services or foster care, this should not matter.”
“If there’s no dependency proceedings, there’s oftentimes no funds to help this,” said Aaron Ludwig, a criminal and family law attorney from Indiana County.
Ludwig spoke to the legal challenges grandparents face when it comes to seeking custody: difficulty establishing legal standing in court to make decisions for a grandchild, demonstrating “substantial risk” to a child, filing suit against a troubled son or daughter. Existing custody statutes don’t favor grandparents when a parent dies, be it from overdose or otherwise, and the law is silent in terms of stepgrandparents, he said.
Changes to established custody law, while potentially beneficial to grandparents thrust into an active parenting role, could encroach on parents’ constitutional rights regardless of their addiction-related issues, he said.
“Grandparents don’t want to sue their kids. They don’t want to create that friction. So they try to do informal agreements,” Ludwig said. “Grandparents want to remain grandparents. They want to transition this back to where their children can raise their own children. It’s very detrimental on them emotionally.”
Friday reiterated more than once she wasn’t looking for a handout. She’s looking for help, and in that, she can’t be alone.
10 percent increase
The number of grandparents identified by the U.S. Census Bureau as primary caregivers for grandchildren jumped 10 percent between 2000 and 2015 and 28 percent in the state’s rural parts over that same timeframe.
Brian Bornman, executive director of Pennsylvania Children and Youth Administrators, said kinship care is up in Pennsylvania. Children living in conditions deemed dangerous are sought for placement in stable homes of their relatives. He said it can reduce the trauma of being separated from parents.
Preliminary clearances and a home safety check are needed for kinship caregivers. To continue custody, they must complete the necessary licensing to become a foster parent, Bornman said.
“It is not uncommon for this to be a … point of consternation for those caregivers, as the process is considered by many to be somewhat intrusive and time-consuming,” Bornman said.
He acknowledged the potential friction that could come between a grandparent and child in custody proceedings but said permanency for a child is a requirement of child welfare agencies.
However, he 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.
Yaw said after the hearing that he was unaware of the kinship law. As to potential legislative changes, he said that’s up for discussion, noting how complex child custody can be.
He said this issue is yet another facet of the opioid and heroin epidemic — issues that seem to broaden with time.
“When people say they’re not impacted by this, they don’t understand the magnitude of the problem,” Yaw said, noting the issues compounded by heroin abuse: jail sentences, child welfare, law enforcement expenses.
“Somebody pays for that, and it’s us,” Yaw said.
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