Like millions of grandparents across the country, Marci Worthington is raising the child her own could not.
A heroin addiction left her child unable to care for her two young daughters and the children fell – as they often do – to their grandparents.
An epidemic of opioid abuse in Connecticut and throughout the country has killed parents, and left others incarcerated, homeless or barred from parenting. The children left behind are often raised by relatives, typically grandparents, said Ana Beltran, an adviser to Generations United, a national advocacy group for inter-generational families. Citing census data, Generations United estimates over 20,000 grandparents in Connecticut are responsible for grandchildren living with them.
In July, President Donald Trump signed legislation that created a task force to help grandparents raising their grandchildren. One of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, said that in 2015, 8 percent of all newborns in her state were born to women addicted to opioids or other drugs.
“The opioid crisis,” Collins said, “has called on grandparents in epic numbers.”
Interviews with about a dozen service providers and experts offered a complicated picture of how surging opioid abuse has affected parenting in Connecticut. Most said, anecdotally, they’ve seen an uptick in grandparents reaching out for help raising their grandkids, often citing their child’s drug use as the driving factor.
But without statistics, it’s difficult to pin down whether more grandparents are actually caring for grandchildren because of their child’s addiction issues, or if people are simply speaking more openly about drug issues in their families, with the opioid crisis declared a full-blown public health emergency.
“It’s by no means a new problem,” said Paul Knierim, the state’s probate court administrator. “And without hard numbers, it’s hard to say, ‘What’s growing awareness, versus what’s a growing number of incidents?’ ”
Still, Knierim, who oversees a probate system that adjudicates hundreds of drug-related custody disputes each year, estimates a quarter of the courts’ guardianship cases stem from opioid abuse.
The percentage of children in state care living with relatives or friends – “kinship care,” as the Department of Children and Families calls it – has doubled from 21 percent in 2011 to 42 percent this year. A shift in DCF policy away from non-relative placements and toward kinship care is partly behind the increase. But service providers also linked the uptick to spiraling opioid abuse.
“I’d say a little over half the grandparents we work with got custody of their grandchildren because their children are on drugs,” said Yolanda Ortiz, at the Community Renewal Team.
Ortiz oversees 24 subsidized townhouses in Hartford for CRT’s “Grandparents Raising Grandchildren” program. The apartments are always full, Ortiz said.
In 2017, 1,040 people died of overdoses in Connecticut, a nearly 200 percent increase in a five-year period. About 25 people in every 100,000 died of an opioid overdose in the state in 2016, nearly double the national average, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Robert Killian, a former probate judge in Hartford, said that before today’s opioid scourge, losing custody of your child was “the ultimate insult” and often enough to push addicted parents toward treatment.
“That, in and of itself, was enough to convince them to get better,” he said. But today, with many of the parents entangled in the probate system addicted to heroin or prescription painkillers, “there really is no return from the abyss you’re staring into,” he said. “So, thank God for the grandparents.”