By Stephen Smoot
United States Census Bureau statistics from 2019 paint a challenging picture when it comes to the decline of the traditional family and the stability that institution brought to children. West Virginia placed second in the nation behind South Dakota with almost 55 percent of grandparents raising grandchildren in their homes.
The national average is one in three.
Grandparents emerging as an expanding class in primary caregiver for children is a symptom of the core problem, that of the impact of the opioid crisis. Just over half of children who enter foster care, for example, do so because of parental drug abuse. One of the key responses developed in West Virginia has been the Healthy Grandfamilies program.
“There’s a variety of reasons this is happening,” states Pam Hotsinpiller, coordinator of the Harrison County Healthy Grandfamilies program. “The biggest reason,” she says, “is the opioid epidemic.”
In some cases, parents started “doing drugs, dropped off their kids and never showed back up.” Other times, court orders removed children from dangerous or neglectful homes. Grandparents also step in when parents die of overdoses, go to jail, or try to get clean in rehabilitation. More rarely, grandparents also take over raising children when parents die in vehicle accidents or go overseas with the military.
Harrison County’s opioid problems rise above those in many state counties. Over one in four Harrison County residents use opioids compared to just 13 percent statewide, according to Tammy Romano, the Healthy Grandfamilies project social worker.
The origin of the program came from West Virginia State University. Dr. Brenda Wamsley and Bonnie Dunn spearheaded it through the university extension program and it now reaches all 55 counties in West Virginia.
In July 2017, Harrison County Board of Education staff attended a conference that included a presentation of the program. They concluded, according to Hotsinpiller, “we need to do what they’re doing.” They held their first “key stakeholder meeting” in October of that year. By March of 2018, Harrison County put on the first educational session.
A team of Harrison County government and non profit stakeholders teamed up to put together an educational and resource connecting program. The United Way of Harrison and Doddridge counties, Birth to Three, Legal Aid, Marion and Harrison County Family Services, the Harrison County Board of Education, and others team up to support efforts.
Two of the main components of it include spring and fall educational sessions along with monthly meetings. The session for spring 2024 will focus on topics such as schooling and education, family trauma, addiction, and legal issues related to their situation.
Legal advice, for example, remains a top need. Grandparents can come into custody through a variety of means, unofficial abandonment, through Child Protective Services or the foster care system, or other situations. Grandparents need legal advice to navigate the state system or even prevent parents from returning and taking children to an unsafe environment.
Healthy Grandfamilies also sets up monthly meetings for support and education at Clarksburg Baptise Church.
Romano explains that grandparents new to raising children in their senior years need extra support. “It’s all new to them,” she said, adding that “raising children is much different than it even was 20 years ago.” Challenges may come from behavioral issues, the impact of technology, different social pressures, and other issues.
Additionally, Romano describes that they endure “disruptions of their lives and lifestyles” that they expected to have in advanced years. While raising children, they must also deal with the traumas and sometimes guilt thrust upon them by their own children’s addiction and related behaviors.
One of the key services provided in the program comes in connection to resources. Grandfamilies must “navigate all of the issues they will be dealing with and mental health is part of that.” Romano also stated that “all of our sponsors provide help for these families. We give them gas cards, for example. I’m so blessed to be a part of this.”
Hotsinpiller added that “we can provide anything from pacifiers to graduation caps.” She noted that the program even provided some laptop computers and technical education for families using them to educate their children.
She also estimates from census information that possibly as many as 3,000 grandparents may be currently raising grandchildren in Harrison. “We’ve worked with 300,” Hotsinpiller shared. Many grandparents, however, have the resources and capabilities to raise children on their own.
The West Virginia State Legislature has expanded support for the program over time. Hotsinpiller explained that the program more than pays for itself. Currently the State provides approximately $800,000 but, she says “the rewards are so great that they need to give us more. They’re saving millions in services” because grandparents have put in more on their own.