You may have heard our story this week about the increasing number of grandparents in Massachusetts stepping in to parent for a second time around, and how this complex decision to take custody of your children’s children plays out in court.
In a growing number of cases, custody is taken by grandparents because their adult children are using heroin. It’s a similar family situation in other parts of New England, and many grandparents are forced to be more resourceful than usual. In doing so, they are also finding friendship in the trenches.
‘She was doing good. And then it all just hit the fan’
At a community center in Brimfield, Massachusetts, a few minutes after cleaning up from a potluck dinner a group of nine men and women sit around a table and start to talk about their grandchildren, and their children. The thing they share? They, not their grown children, are the primary caregivers, lunch makers, permission slip signers, and in some cases, shoelace tiers for the grandkids.
Richard Learned adopted his 12-year-old granddaughter when she was a baby. He says he had to take custody. His son was unable to step up as a parent when his daughter-in-law went from prescribed, and needed, pain killer meds, to getting hooked on heroin.
“I ended up getting a restraining order,” Learned says.
His daughter-in-law continued to use for five or six more years, Learned says, “and she finally cleaned up her act, but by then I had already adopted my granddaughter.”
Also here, Ted, who like some others in the room, doesn’t want us to use a last name. He and his wife are in their 60s. Their daughter? Everything was fine through high school and college, he says.
“She was doing good. And then it all just hit the fan,” Ted says. “And it’s like, what the heck’s going on? But because she’s my daughter, we enable. ‘We’ll fix it. Everything’s going to be fine.'”
But he adds, we’re not really addressing the real problem with addiction. Maybe not, but he and his wife are raising their two grandsons, now in middle school.
‘We Got A Lot Of Grandparents Raising Grandchildren’
Ted is among the 34,000 grandparents in Massachusetts raising grandchildren. A recent survey from a statewide commission on grandparents raising grandchildren found that about 80 percent are doing so because of the current heroin crisis. Some of these grandparents are in their 50s and 60s. Some are retired. Many still work full time. Others have chosen to end a successful career and stay home to raise their now-second family. Some are even great-grandparents.
The support group in Brimfield meets about twice a month. Some people go to other support groups too, in other towns, just to connect. Families here are from Monson, Charlton and Westfield.
Seventy year old Margo Chevers lives in the tiny town of Wales. Talking to the group, she says she’s been getting a lot of calls from school nurses saying they have a lot of grandparents raising grandchildren. They ask what can they do for them.
“I tell them, ‘You can always give out my name,'” Chevers says.
Learned says he does too. Then several other people chime in. “I think we all do,” they say.
Chevers and Learned met dropping off their grandchildren at preschool. She noticed he was like her, older than the other parents. They started asking each other about health care for the kids, school forms. And what about car seats? They would just stand there and commiserate. Chevers says she knew of services he didn’t know about. And vice versa. They agreed, they needed to get state lawmakers involved.
“We’ve got to tell them that when somebody takes custody, they’ve got to be told there are services, because none of us knew,” Chevers said.
It’s Okay To Say, ‘What Was I Thinking?’
Chevers is one of ten members of the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Grandparents Raising Grandchildren, dedicated to this inter-generational family issue. She says she speaks with grandparents from around the state and tells them it’s okay to resent the position they’ve been put in, even as they love the kids.
“I say it’s okay to be glad for it.” Chevers says. “It’s okay to say, ‘What was I thinking?’ And it’s okay to say, ‘These are my children, forever.'”
Forever. That’s a beautiful thing, and enormously, unexpectedly expensive. Some grandparents take out second mortgages to make ends meet. Some say they are working more years then they ever expected. Some use up their retirement money on the lawyers, needed in numerous jurisdictions if their adult child is out of state. Then there’s all the usual costs associated with raising a family.
The talk on this spring night is not just about legal fees and courtrooms. The grandparents swap stories about their ten-year-old kids going on twenty, about how to balance sports and school work, about how to understand this younger generation. aAnd each person has a story that could knock your socks off.
‘In Her Mind I Stole Her Children’
Fifty-four-year-old Ken and 50-year-old Lisa from Charlton are raising their granddaughter. She is a nurse in Worcester. He is at Westover Airforce Reserve Base in Westfield.
Their daughter is a heroin addict. She disappeared for a year when she was a senior in high school and eventually came home pregnant. They invited her to move back in. She soon left, and took her newborn baby to a dirt-floored basement apartment she shared with a boyfriend. State child welfare officials got involved. Lisa and Ken got guardianship of the child.
“We fought for nine and a half months in court and finally got permanent guardianship,” Lisa says.
But when she and her husband went to do their will, she says, “We were told that permanent guardianship doesn’t necessarily mean that she can’t be taken away. So we panicked, and we pushed and pushed.”
Her daughter and the baby’s father eventually relinquished their rights, Lisa says. She and her husband adopted their granddaughter “so no one could ever take her from us,” Lisa says.
The granddaughter is now four. She’s moving along nicely, Lisa says, even after some speech delay. Then, about two months ago, Lisa and Ken got a phone call. Their daughter had two more children they didn’t know about.
“There’s two more babies in Ohio that have been in foster care since November ,” Lisa says, starting to cry.
They are 15 months and 2 1/2 years, and the couple say the news turned their world turned upside down. Their daughter, who they had spoken to just the day before the call, hasn’t talked to them since.
Lisa says, “In her mind I stole her children and I’m stealing these as well.”
They Think You’re A Hero
Even with all the pain and uncertainty, it’s remarkable though not unusual how much joy there is in the room, and how practical the group of grandparents get with offers of help, clothes, toys, advice. Here, the grandparents can be themselves. They don’t have to hide how they really feel about the situation. At work, Lisa says, her co-workers all think she’s a hero.
“So you can’t tell them that you hate your daughter, and that this isn’t really want I want to do. But I have the ability, we have the ability to give two more children something they’ll never ever have,” Lisa says, and Ken nods.
Grandparents often wonder what they did that got them here, says Chevers. She tells them they did nothing wrong, and they’re doing now what needs to be done.
“It’s the hardest decision you can make because you love the parent. And you love the grandchildren. And you become the bad guy because you’re right there in the middle,” Chevers says.
She adds that the state commission is pushing lawmakers to fund an executive director for the group, someone who can help grandparents around Massachusetts learn about available school, health and financial services, and learn also more about the challenges ahead.
You Live With Your Grandparents?
After about an hour or so, a group of chatty elementary-aged grandchildren arrive and the room is suddenly charged with new energy. The kids were downstairs, finishing their homework and playing games with a babysitter. That potluck dinner? Well now there’s seconds on dessert and cookies are being rapidly consumed.
Several of the grown-ups say, even if they didn’t need to be here, they’d come for their grandchildren’s sake.
It’s a time and a place when no one ever says to them, “Wait, you live with your grandparents?”