When Mike and Amber St. Germain were anticipating retirement, they envisioned traveling a couple times a year to Italy and other dreamy destinations. But in 2012, their daughter, then 18, had a baby. She moved in with her parents — her baby, Addison, and Addison’s father in tow. After stealing from a neighbor, Addison’s father disappeared, and her mother, who had a substance abuse problem, was incapable of taking care of her.
So the St. Germains moved Addison’s crib into their bedroom, and their daughter moved out when she refused to follow “house rules” or take care of her baby; the grandparents established guardianship in 2013. Their daughter consented, said Mike St. Germain, because she knew her “lifestyle” was unhealthy for a baby. Now 5 years old, Addison knows her grandparents as the only parents she’s had. “She is a fantastic child,” said Mike St. Germain, 46, who retired from his job as a UPS regional manager in 2014 and lives outside of Atlanta with wife Amber, 45, two sons in their 20s and Addison.
“Initially, there was a lot of struggle, which is why we started a closed support group on Facebook [Grandparents Raising Grandchildren], so we could all talk to each other,” he said.
The St. Germains have plenty of company. About 2.6 million American children are being raised by their grandparents or other older relatives in what social scientists sometimes describe as “grandfamilies.” Experts say this number is rising sharply as the opioid epidemic and other kinds of substance abuse devastate families and communities across the country. A newly released book — You’ve Always Been There for Me: Understanding the Lives of Grandchildren Raised by Their Grandparents (Rutgers University Press) by Rachel Dunifon — analyzes data gathered from grandfamilies in New York to determine their distinct challenges and strengths.
Dunifon, a professor of policy analysis and management and chair of the human ecology department at Cornell University, notes that grandchildren benefit from the time-accrued maturity, wisdom and patience of grandparents who are raising children for a second time. But she notes there also can be struggles stemming from a sizable generation gap, age-related health problems, increased stress and worries over finite finances. Grandfamilies, a growing variant of the American family, are largely invisible to the public eye and rarely get the assistance they need from social service agencies, policymakers and family researchers.
“I would like to see how best to support this new family system, grandparents, the adult children and grandchildren, so that all are getting the support they need in this new phenomenon,” said Annette Ermshar, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist with practices in Pasadena and San Marino. “The percentage of grandparents who have taken over parenting has doubled. U.S. Census data says that in 2012, 10 percent of grandparents lived with their grandchildren compared to 3 percent in 1970. There is not a lot of research in terms of the mental health of the grandparents and the grandchildren.” In Los Angeles alone, some 300,000 grandparents are raising children, according to the L.A.-based Alliance for Children’s Rights.
With the opioid addiction crisis fueling the rise of grandfamilies, help arrived by legislative action last month. U.S. Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) who chairs the Senate Special Committee on Aging and ranking member Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) co-authored the Supporting Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Act. The move followed a May 2017 hearing featuring testimony from grandparents and others about the pressing need for older caretakers to have easy access to resources that would assist them.
The bill, signed into law last month by President Donald Trump, will create a one-stop shop of resources to support grandparents and other relatives (so-called “kinship families”) raising grandchildren. A federal advisory committee, led by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, will be established to identify, promote and distribute crucial information about the best ways to help caregiving relatives meet the unusual health, educational, psychological and nutritional needs of children they’ve taken in. A grandparent and another older relative raising a grandchild will be part of the committee. A report will be issued to Congress after six months, and again in two years on best practices and resources, along with noted gaps in services.
Caregivers’ need to maintain their own physical and emotional and mental well-being will also be addressed. Forty advocacy groups for older adults and children supported the bill. “Many of today’s low-income grandparent caregivers — sometimes great-grandparent caregivers — find themselves forced to cut their own retirement finances and defer their dreams” to care for their grandchildren, Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, a Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit that promotes policies and programs to assist grandfamilies, wrote in Forbes Magazine after the bill was signed into law.
Caring for grandchildren may come at a high cost to grandparents, but it provides a huge savings for the government. Older relatives providing safe haven to their imperiled grandchildren saves the U.S. government $6 billion a year, according to The Conversation (theconversation.com), an independent nonprofit online source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts. Custodial grandparents raising grandchildren are overrepresented in racial and ethnic minority groups, and 67 percent are younger than 60, while 25 percent live in poverty even though half of custodial grandparents are still working, according to the website. For grandparents worried about outliving their financial resources, the added expense of raising a grandchild adds layers of stress, worry and anxiety. But out of love, and without regard to the cost, grandparents swoop in because there is no other option.
Indeed, with the rise in heroin addiction and other substance abuse, grandparents taking charge is often precipitated by devastating struggles with their own adult children that leave them emotionally wrung out — whipsawed between anger, sadness and exhaustion. Like the St. Germains’ daughter, Judi LeCompte’s daughter moved in immediately after giving birth to Gianna in 2008. When LeCompte’s daughter, who had an oxycodone addiction, tried to put Gianna, then 18 months old, in a booster seat instead of a car seat for a ride in a Honda Civic with four adults and two other kids in car seats, LeCompte “lost it.”
“I just went insane,” said LeCompte, who is 60. “It was a nightmare. I just said, ‘You no longer live here. She is mine.’ So we had to figure it out. Either Gianna lived with us or she went to foster care.” LeCompte, who lives in a Philadelphia suburb with her husband, Karl, 65, called state Children and Youth Services and the next day, an order was drawn up limiting Gianna’s mother to supervised visits with her daughter twice a month for three hours. The court also gave LeCompte the right to drug test her daughter anytime she wanted.
LeCompte said she has legal guardianship of Gianna, now 9. A federal bankruptcy manager for the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Philadelphia, she said she will not adopt Gianna out of fear it would push her daughter, who suffers from mental health issues as well as addiction, over the edge. LeCompte also has a second daughter who is a heroin addict currently in jail on a felony drug conviction, although she has tested clean for over a year. That daughter’s child, Arianna, lived with LeCompte for nine months along with Gianna. Arianna now lives with her paternal grandparents. “You cannot imagine how tragic this is unless you are in it, every day,” said LeCompte.
When a parent is struggling with addiction and mental illness, it leaves grandparents with a whirl of decisions to make — most often in a moment of crisis. For many, postponing retirement, navigating school systems, securing custody through the court system, finding mental and emotional-health supports and overcoming a generation gap are part of a web of challenges that accompany a second round of parenthood. The grandchildren are often fragile and damaged from what they been through. Grandparents are “replacing traumatic pasts with loving and hopeful futures,” as Sen. Collins told AARP.org.
“These children have emotional baggage,” said Carmen Hoffman, director of the Los Angeles chapter of Grandparents as Parents (GAP), a program of OneGeneration, a Van Nuys–based nonprofit supporting seniors and grandfamilies, which last month added GAP, a 31-year-old nonprofit, to the organization’s offerings of resources. “They don’t know why they feel this way. And these grandparents, it is all new to them, the technology has changed, everything has changed [since they raised their children].”
OneGeneration’s GAP program runs 10 support groups throughout L.A. County (a Pasadena group disbanded due to poor attendance; the closest one is in Pomona). The groups are free and vital to grandparents who often feel isolated in their plight and in great need of peer-to-peer counsel with the guiding hand of a facilitator. The power of shared experience diminishes those feelings of isolation, said Hoffman, who runs a group in Santa Clarita where the majority of grandparents are raising youngsters whose parents have succumbed to opioid addictions. Facebook support groups like St. Germain’s Grandparents Raising Grandchildren have provided a powerful place to share and vent, especially for people with no access to in-person grandfamily support groups. Websites and Facebook pages like The Addict’s Mom, The Parents of Drug Addicts and Before The Petals Fall are also helping to fill that void.
After the CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes ran a segment in May on grandparents raising grandchildren due to the ravages of the opioid epidemic, St. Germain said his Facebook group almost tripled within a month, increasing to 2,000 from 700. There are now 4,500 members with more joining at a rate of 15 to 20 a day. The group is closed, meaning people have to request permission to join. In a 28-day period last month, St. Germain, the group administrator, said there were 138,000 posts from grandparents raising grandchildren and that 90 percent have adult children in the grip of addiction to opioids, methamphetamines, benzodiazepines or “all of the above.”
“Sometimes they post just to vent, sometimes it is to share information — look what I found on this website, or about a book,” said St. Germain. “Especially with children of addicts, they have all these unique issues. Some are developmental delays, Asperger’s, autism, physical disabilities. Some are as simple as ‘How in the world do I potty train this child?’”
Though grandparents can apply for Temporary Assistance For Needy Families (TANF), foster care payments, subsidized guardianship, child support payments, social security benefits or tax credits, navigating a bureaucratic maze is complex and daunting. Each funding source has advantages and disadvantages and should be evaluated for what best fits a grandfamily’s particular needs, according to Generations United. GAP did have a staff member assigned to the Edmund D. Edelman Children’s Court in Monterey Park to assist grandparents establish guardianship, but the post has not been staffed due to lack of funding. In lieu of a personal navigator, Hoffman recommends downloading the Resource Family Approval Toolkit at kids-alliance.org, the website of Alliance for Children’s Rights.
Many of the government-funded assistance programs require grandparents to adopt rather than establish guardianship, which can create an additional hurdle. Judi LeCompte will not adopt her granddaughter Gianna because her daughter refuses to agree to it, and that means that her Social Security benefits cannot go to Gianna. This is a source of deep worry, she says.
For Mike St. Germain, anything that compromises his daughter recovering from her addiction, getting back on her feet and becoming a healthy mother to Addison is not an option. He and wife Amber fear that if they apply for government help, the state or federal government could seek child support payments from their daughter, whose addiction started when she began stealing her father’s pain pills prescribed for his back and graduated to benzodiazepines. She’s currently on probation following incarceration for credit card theft and must test drug-free to stay out of jail. Said Germain: “I tend to not want to step over that line because it will just make her position that much more difficult.”