Bette Hoxie was just a child when she read “Little Men” and “Jo’s Boys” by Louisa May Alcott. The books, companions to Alcott’s more widely read classic “Little Women,” chronicle the lives of headstrong Jo March and her German-born husband, professor Friedrich Bhaer, at Plumfield, the country estate Jo inherits from her cantankerous but beloved Aunt March and turns into a loving home and school for orphaned boys.
The Plumfield stories stirred in Hoxie’s young heart the desire to touch the lives of children in a warm, lasting and therapeutic way, the Old Town resident said in a recent interview. And it’s no accident that, at 70, she’s still caring — personally and professionally — for Maine youngsters whose own parents are unable, unwilling or simply unavailable.
Hoxie has long personal experience in caring for other people’s children in her own home. Over the years, along with her late husband, Joe, she has fostered about 150 children and ended up permanently adopting and raising eight of them. That’s in addition to the three biological children they raised together and a grandson who came to live with her as an infant. He’s now 17 and is about to graduate from Old Town High School.
“We kept telling ourselves, ‘This is the last one,’” she said with a laugh. “And then another one would come along.” Just like in Jo’s Boys.
Opioid addiction a family crisis
Hoxie, who has a degree in social services, is also the founder and executive director of the 20-year-old nonprofit Adoptive and Foster Families of Maine, which has offices in Orono and Saco. The agency provides support services statewide to families coping with the challenges of raising foster or adoptive children, including so-called “grandfamily” placements.
On March 21, Hoxie testified by invitation before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, chaired by Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, at a special hearing on the impact of Maine’s opioid addiction crisis on grandparents and other family members who step into care for displaced children.
In her testimony, Hoxie described the scope of the problem in Maine, detailed the services her agency provides and called for increased funds to directly support kinship foster placements.
“Grandparents need to know that this country supports them as well,” she told the lawmakers. “Funds to meet the basic needs of families taking on a relative’s child needs to be a priority.”
Hoxie knows there’s nothing new about children needing temporary or permanent care from adults who are not their parents. Only now, she said during a conversation in her Orono office, many of the displaced children in need of a safe, stable, loving home have parents who are casualties of the epidemic of opioid addiction that is sweeping Maine and the nation.
Some of these young parents are in treatment, some are in jail and some tragically have died of an overdose. Others are struggling to live with their addiction but are not providing adequately for their own children in the process.
Many of the adults stepping forward to care for these youngsters, Hoxie said, are their grandparents or other family members, struggling to cope with a multifaceted family crisis that often includes derailed retirement plans, financial struggles, social isolation, feelings of guilt and shame and, often, a heartbreaking schism with their own offspring.
“People love their children,” she said of these multigenerational family placements. “It doesn’t matter what they’re doing. But how can you keep loving them and supporting them and still do what’s best for their kids?”
Unexpected demands at retirement age
Hoxie’s agency maintains a mailing list of about 4,500 active foster and adoptive families. About 85 percent of her client families are headed by grandparents or other relatives.
“More and more of them are calling us for support saying that [opioid] addiction is the problem,” she said.
Retirement-age family members often struggle to meet the unexpected material and emotional demands of caring for a grandchild or grandchildren, she said, no matter how authentically they want to help when their own adult child is struggling against addiction.
The expense of bringing a young child into the home can derail retirement plans, drain retirement savings and force people to stay in the workforce longer than expected, for instance. From diapers, cribs and school supplies to medical care, counseling and college application fees, Hoxie said, many grandfamilies struggle to make ends meet at a time when they hoped to be transitioning into retirement, traveling or enjoying other activities.
Legal costs can also mount up quickly as family members consult with lawyers about gaining legal custody and formal guardianship, sometimes against the wishes of their own children. Many families simple lack the financial resources to pay an attorney and quickly get bogged down in the complex bureaucracy of legal forms, filing deadlines and court appearances.
While a few Maine lawyers provide free or reduced cost services to foster and adoptive families, not all families qualify for these discounts, Hoxie said.
In some cases, grandparents assuming the care of a child may be forced to move from a seniors-only housing complex to one that allows youngsters, or to relocate to a new community to avoid changing schools. Grandparents may also be required to become licensed foster care providers, subject to training and home inspection requirements.
Grandparents also may feel displaced socially, Hoxie said. As peers move forward into retirement, they may have little interest in hearing about the trials and tribulations of raising a grandchild late in life or of navigating a despairing relationship with a beloved adult child. And they may have little in common with younger adults, the parents of other school-age children.
“It’s surprising how isolated they can feel,” Hoxie said.
But perhaps the greatest surprise for grandfamilies is the long-term commitment they make when they step forward to care for a youngster whose own parents are addicted to opioid drugs. There is no quick fix for addiction, Hoxie pointed out, and even those individuals who access treatment and succeed in getting clean face a long uphill battle to regain their status as responsible parents, if they ever do. Grandparents may hope their grandchildren will someday return to their own parents and allow them to get on with their retirement plans, but the reality is often far otherwise.
“People don’t always understand the strength of this commitment,” she said. “You think that at age 18 or 21 they’ll be independent, living on their own. But many are still very needy even as adults.”
Adoptive and Foster Families of Maine helps families cope with these stressors with services such as support groups, a lending inventory of donated clothing and furnishings like cribs and high chairs, fundraisers for diapers and school supplies and a small fund that can help offset legal expenses.
Walking the walk
Hoxie lost one of her own adopted sons two years ago to a drug overdose, when he was 25. It’s still hard for her to talk about. She had no idea he was using opioids. “I was blown out of the water,” she said. “But he had issues even as a little boy. Trauma is trauma, and it follows children around forever.”
But, with exception of her grandson Joe-Joe, the rest of her children — biological, adoptive and foster alike — are now adults. Many have children of their own. Although some have moved away, her home in Old Town is still a hubbub of family comings and goings.
Two of her sons still live at home, along with Joe-Joe, one of her daughters, her daughter’s husband and their two young children.
“And I still have nine former foster children who consider me their mom and consider my home their home,” Hoxie said. “Weekends, they all come home to roost. You’d never know that they’re not biological siblings.”
Recently, she’s been flirting with the possibility of bringing another child into her home, a lively 19-month-old boy whose mother is grappling with addiction and whose father’s living situation is unstable and, potentially, unsafe.
The boy is not biologically related but still “family,” Hoxie said, and she stands ready to raise him as her own if needed — despite the fact that, by the time he’s ready to graduate from high school, she’ll be in her mid-80s.
“I don’t imagine him needing me for a lifetime,” she said, philosophically. “I know enough about the background to hope his parents can get things back to normal.”
She paused and added, “I want to have faith that his parents will be able to do that.”