HARRISBURG — When Denise Shanahan lost her daughter to a fatal fentanyl overdose in 2015 she took on the responsibility of raising her two young grandsons.
One boy was just 3 years old at the time. The other, 8 months. The eldest child found his mother dead on the floor of her bedroom. Their fathers weren’t in the picture, says Shanahan, of York County.
While mourning the sudden death of her daughter, Shanahan was thrust into the role of a full-time parent. She ultimately adopted the boys.
“I was in no way prepared for this, not financially or emotionally,” Shanahan said during a recent press event at the Pennsylvania State Capitol to raise awareness of resources available to caregivers raising children.
She’s hardly alone.
An estimated 260,000 children in Pennsylvania live in homes with relatives other than their parents serving as heads of household, according to a report from grandfamilies.org, a national legal resource for grandfamilies. About 68,000 children are being raised by kin with no parent present.
The responsibility largely falls on grandparents like Shanahan, with drugs and alcohol often to blame. An estimated 235,000 grandparents are primary caregivers for their grandchildren in Pennsylvania.
The demands tax the caregivers physically, emotionally and financially, says Robert Torres, secretary, Pennsylvania Department of Aging. Shanahan, a single grandparent, works from home, too, but says she still relies on Medicaid and food stamps to get by.
Torres highlighted his department’s Caregiver Support Program, found in the Aging Services section of www.aging.pa.gov. Administered by county Area Agencies on Aging, the program assists older caregivers raising minors with up to $600 monthly in reimbursements for out-of-pocket expenses including babysitting, respite care, consumables like school supplies, home modifications and summer camp.
There are no income eligibility requirements, however, reimbursement is based on a sliding income scale.
An assigned care manager works with enrollees to assess needs and develop a plan of care that could include benefits counseling and caregiver education and training.
About 1 in 4 Pennsylvanians are age 60 or older and Torres said by 2030, that figure will be 1 in 3. The expectation is that more grandparents will be faced with raising their grandchildren.
“We want these grandparents to know they are not alone and that supports are available,” Torres said.
Jon Rubin, deputy secretary of the Office of Children, Youth, and Families, Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, spoke to the PA KinConnector program.
KinConnector, available at www.kinconnector.org or 1-866-546-2111, can be used by caregivers for financial assistance, to find legal information or referrals, securing health insurance, and even obtaining food assistance.
State Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski, D-Luzerne, spoke of how a bipartisan bill package adopted in 2018, spurred by the testimony of grandparents in situations like Shanahan’s, created PA KinConnector and authorized temporary legal guardianship for caregivers.
Pashinski proposed House Bill 2858 in late September, too far along in the current session to gain traction, and intends to reintroduce the measure in the next session. It seeks to establish a grant program to help caregivers obtain civil legal services to secure legal custody, obtain financial benefits and housing and more.
It’s based on a program operated in Georgia, he said, and is similar to an advocacy fund established in Luzerne County which has provided more than $25,000 to beneficiaries in recent years.
Secretary Jen Smith of the Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs encouraged anyone in need of help to contact the Get Help Now Hotline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) to speak with a trained resource navigator.
“There are people ready and willing to help connect you to resources,” Smith said.