Grandparents have always played an important role in their grandchildren’s lives. Working together with a child’s parents, grandparents can be positive role models in a young person’s life. In return, grandchildren can help support the healthy aging of their elders. This special relationship can be a win-win for all involved. In a growing number of families here in Maine and around the country, however, grandparents have become the primary caretakers.
Like so many other states, Maine is severely affected by the opioid crisis that permeates our nation and its vulnerable families. More and more infants are being born to mothers who are using opioids while pregnant. The Maine Department of Health and Human Services estimates that nearly 1,000 babies in Maine were born to women addicted to opioids and other drugs in 2015, compared with 178 in 2006. This crisis is taking its toll on a population of older Americans.
I was honored to have recently been invited by U.S. Sen. Susan Collins to testify on the issue of grandparents raising grandchildren during a congressional hearing in Washington, D.C. As executive director of Adoptive and Foster Families of Maine and the Kinship Program in Orono, I see these families, known as “grandfamilies,” every day. They are people who want nothing more than to love their grandchildren, spoil them and send them home to be raised and nurtured by their biological parents — but they can’t. Instead, these grandparents have become parents again.
Adoptive and Foster Families of Maine and the Kinship Program work with a great team of professionals daily to support these grandparents, who, in many cases, may not have the resources they will need. For instance, they may not have a spare bed or clothing for the children. That’s why we collect new and gently used items that are provided free to grandparents who need them. If we don’t have what they need, we distribute an SOS to our network and can usually get it within a few days. We also provide licensing and legal guidance and guide grandparents through the often complicated court and state agency systems.
One of the most common needs of grandparent caregivers is support. We provide support groups where families share their stories and lean on others who are facing similar challenges. During these groups, we provide child care, which serves two purposes: grandparents receive much needed respite even for a short time, and children get to spend time with other children who are also being raised by their grandparents. Sometimes, this is the child’s only opportunity to realize they’re not the only ones in this situation.
As I mentioned, I work with grandfamilies every day. I also am one of those families. I am a grandmother who raised my grandson since infancy. Today, he is 18-years-old and soon will graduate from high school. I love him, and I am so proud of the young man he has become. I relate personally to those grandparents who thought they would be retired, not going to parent-teacher conferences. And I understand the struggles of those who might have saved a little bit of money for their retirement but are spending those funds on diapers, gas to get to and from medical and other appointments and babysitters. It’s a long, tough road for these families, but help is available.
I am deeply grateful to Collins and the Senate Aging Committee for taking the time to shine a spotlight on this issue and for recognizing not only the challenges these families face but also the special relationship we share. We do it simply for one reason: We love our grandchildren and want them living in safe and stable homes.
Bette Hoxie is the executive director of Adoptive and Foster Families of Maine and the Kinship Program, which has offices in Orono and Saco. For more information, visit affm.net or call 1-800-833-9786.