Correction: Opioid Epidemic-Grandfamilies story
Updated 5:59 pm, Monday, November 13, 2017
OGDEN, Utah (AP) — In a Nov. 8 AP member exchange about grandparents helping fight the opioid epidemic, The Associated Press erroneously spelled the reporter's last name. It is Mark Saal, not Mark Saals.
A corrected version of the story is below:
Grandfamilies program fights symptoms of opioid epidemic
Karen and Ron Hard pictured their "golden years" unfolding in a much different way
By MARK SAAL
OGDEN, Utah (AP) — Karen and Ron Hard pictured their "golden years" unfolding in a much different way.
Travel. Dining out. More time for just the two of them.
Instead, the fifty-something South Ogden couple is busy raising three granddaughters — an 8-year-old, a 4-year-old and a 2-month-old — and the situation has completely altered their expectation of an empty-nester lifestyle.
"We bought a motorcycle and thought we'd go riding," Karen Hard said wistfully. "But when friends call up and say 'We're going here or there,' well, we've got grandkids to take care of. We just tell our friends, 'You go have fun.'"
The Hards prefer not to go into detail, saying only that their daughter is currently unable to take care of her own children. Grandma and grandpa obtained legal guardianship of the two older girls eight months ago; they became the 2-month-old's legal guardians at the first of this month.
Taking on the role of full-time parenting again may not be what they expected — or even wanted — but the Hards wouldn't have it any other way.
"I didn't want the kids in foster care," Karen Hard said. "I have 15 grandkids, and I would take any of them."
Karen and Ron Hard are part of a growing army of "grandfamilies" — households where grandparents are raising grandchildren due to an abdication of that responsibility by the generation in between.
According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, about 2.7 million — or 4 percent — of all U.S. children are being raised by a grandparent or relative other than the parent. Children placed with relatives make up more than a quarter of all children in the foster care system, and for every child raised in the system nearly 25 are raised by grandparents or other relatives outside the system.
And given factors like the so-called "opioid epidemic," the increasing numbers of women incarcerated and military deployments, it's likely those numbers will continue to rise.
Enter Utah's Grandfamilies program.
Grandfamilies is an offering of the Children's Service Society, a Salt Lake City-based nonprofit organization that's been around since 1894. The goal is to provide help to relatives — primarily grandparents — who are raising someone else's children. Among the program's offerings are educational classes, legal assistance, crisis intervention, social networking and financial resources.
The Grandfamilies program has been operating in a limited number of counties along the Wasatch Front since 2002, and in January 2015 it expanded into Weber County.
The Weber County program has come a long way in three years, according to Sheila Richins, a family advocate in the program.
"When we came to Weber County, we didn't even have office chairs at first," she recalls. "I remember when we first opened the office I brought lawn chairs from home to sit on."
Since then, the organization has served in the neighborhood of 300 families, according to Richins.
It's difficult to measure just how many children in Weber County are living with their grandparents. However, the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation lists 1,975 children in Weber County living with a grandparent as the sole caregiver. It also notes that 5,480 Weber County children live in a home where grandparents are the head of household.
Bacall Hincks, coordinator for the Grandfamilies program, says in the first six months in Weber County they saw 77 new families come into the program. The yearly numbers of new families in the program have been fairly consistent over the first three years, but Hincks says the overall number of kids they're serving is on the rise. In fiscal year 2016, for example, the program involved 267 children in Weber County alone.
"Anecdotally, I think we're seeing more and more kids because of the increase of opioid use," Hincks said. "I believe Weber County is one of the higher counties in Utah for opioid use."
Substance abuse is the No. 1 reason children end up being raised by their grandparents, according to Hincks.
The Children's Service Society used a three-year, $600,000 grant from the Utah Legislature to establish the Grandfamilies program in Weber County. However, that grant money ran out in June, and the legislature did not provide any money for the current year.
"Since July, we've been having to find other avenues of funding — grant-writing, donations, whatever we can find to stay open," Hincks said. "If we don't receive some sort of large, consistent funding, we may be looking at having to close the Weber County office."
That, Richins says, would be a travesty. She understands everyone is clamoring for a piece of the taxpayer pie, but there are families in Weber County in desperate need of help.
"You can't take a child and say, 'If you'll just hang on for five years until we get this sorted out and your parents get out of recovery, they'll be good parents,' " she said. "These kids need help now. A little 5-year-old cannot wait until she's 10, because the trauma and experiences she's going through right now will be with her for life."
The irony, Hincks says, is that grandparents raising grandchildren actually saves the state quite a bit of money.
"This is a big-picture issue," she said. "If you look at how much it costs to fund one child in foster care it's between $4,000 and $25,000, so programs like this are actually saving the state money."
Generations United, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit advocacy group, calculates these grandfamilies save taxpayers more than $6.5 billion each year by keeping children out of foster care.
Richins says the Grandfamilies program here could have easily closed up shop when state funding went away, but Children's Service Society moved some budget items around to keep the Weber County office open.
"Of course, I don't know how long that will last," Richins said. "Another year. But we need to wake the legislature up."
The Grandfamilies program offers clients a monthly "Friend 2 Friend" activity, an opportunity to socialize with other families who understand what they're going through. On a recent Saturday afternoon, Grandfamilies participants Bill and Sandy L. Gibson hosted the program's annual Chili Cookoff and Halloween Carnival at their West Haven home.
The Gibsons have been raising their granddaughter, now 12, since she was 3 years old.
"We didn't ever imagine doing this, but we know it's necessary and we wouldn't have it any other way," Bill Gibson said. "Because our granddaughter needs us, and we need her."
Bill Gibson said grandparents can drive themselves crazy trying to analyze how they ended up raising a grandchild.
"Why did this kid get on drugs, or this kid end up in jail?" he asked. "What happened? What did I do wrong here? But I don't think we do anything necessarily wrong. It just happens, and you have to cope with it."
He says the Grandfamilies program helps teach grandparents not to be ashamed of the situation they're in.
Sandy Gibson knows that some grandparents simply can't take care of a grandchild. And she says that's OK.
"You're usually retired, you've got a limited income, you've got those retirement issues, health issues, not as much energy," she said. "Life becomes more difficult, and then you add a kid into the mix."
Sandy Gibson believes the support system offered by Grandfamilies is the most valuable part of the service.
"You can go to these classes and look around and say, 'Hey, there are eight other grandmas in this room, and we all have the same issues,' " she said. "We are all chasing down little kids, we're all wondering if we have enough money to get to the end of the month."
Sandy Gibson says what she misses most about a "normal" retirement are things like traveling and sitting down to read a book.
"Just grandma things," she said. "But we still travel. Now we just take our granddaughter."
At the recent Halloween event at the Gibsons, Ogden resident Betty Crockett was there with her 7-year-old and 4 ½-month-old granddaughters. She's been involved in Grandfamilies for about a year.
"When things were not going very good, DCFS recommended it to help me learn boundaries," Crockett said. "It's amazing, and it honestly teaches you some very valuable skills."
Another Grandfamilies Halloween carnival attendee was Mark Jones, of West Point. He and his wife, Brenda, are raising their 13-year-old granddaughter. They've had her with them, off and on, since she was 6 months old.
"Her mother is unable to take care of her," Jones said. "There's some mental illness there."
When her mother attempted suicide, the granddaughter was the one who performed CPR, according to Jones.
"We're so thankful Grandfamilies has therapists at no cost to us," he said.
Jones said they've been participating in the Grandfamilies program since April, and it's already made a big difference in their lives. The weekly classes are helpful, and as a bonus dinner is included. What's more, he says, the legal advice is priceless.
"If you talked to an attorney, do you know how expensive that would be?" Jones asked. "They're very knowledgeable about the legal system at Grandfamilies, and because of that, this time we got legal custody of our granddaughter. The first time, my daughter just showed up one day and said I'm taking her with me. But now, we're the legal guardians."
Theresa Mathis has been a family advocate with the Grandfamilies program since March. She comes from a background with the Utah Division of Child and Family Services, so she's seen the program from the outside.
"When I was with DCFS, I found Grandfamilies very helpful when we couldn't help," she said. "If kids are with their grandparents, and there's no abuse or neglect, we had no way to help them — there's nothing the state can do."
Mathis runs the Grandfamilies program's Monday night support group for the children. The 10-week course deals with setting boundaries, expressing emotions, coping skills, family dynamics and more.
However, right now the group only accommodates ages 4 to 11. Mathis is hopeful they'll eventually find the funding for a teen group.
"That's my huge desire," she said. "We do have one clinical person to meet with individual teens — me — so they're not just in the wind. But our hope is to have a teen group as well."
'EVERYBODY'S RAISING GRANDKIDS'
Karen and Ron Hard, the South Ogden couple raising three of their grandchildren, say the Grandfamilies program has helped them with plenty of material things — like coats and pajamas and Christmas presents. But it's also helped them to realize they're not alone in their journey.
"I've been told that in Utah there are 43,000 grandparents raising their grandchildren because of the opioid addiction and prison," Karen Hard said. "I thought it was just a little group of us, but it's not. Everybody's raising grandkids."
And there may be light at the end of the tunnel. The grandkids' mother is doing better these days, and the courts will reassess guardianship in a year.
"Eventually, I hope to have my daughter in her own place and raising the girls," Karen Hard said.
And until then?
"We're making a payment on a motorcycle we don't ride," she says.