Opioid crisis lands rising number of kids in grandparents’ care

Karen Bouffard
The Detroit News

An increasing number of grandparents in Michigan and nationwide are sacrificing retirement to raise grandchildren abandoned as a result of the opioid crisis — often with little support to help them navigate schools and social services, according to a new report.

Nationally, 20 percent of grandparents surveyed said they were raising grandchildren due to parental drug addiction, while in other cases the adult child had died or was incarcerated, homeless or mentally ill. Thirty-two percent said they had delayed retirement or gone back to work to raise their grandchildren. 

The Ann Arbor-based nonprofit Altarum surveyed 1,015 such grandparents online from across the country and conducted in-depth personal interviews with 20 grandmothers in Michigan. Altarum focuses on health solutions for vulnerable populations from low-income children to seniors.

Across the country, the number of children entering foster care increased 10 percent between 2012 and 2016, with children entering foster care at higher rates in counties that have the highest rates of drug deaths and hospitalizations, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

But many children who are cared for by grandparents or other relatives aren't part of the foster care system, said Christine Stanik, a senior researcher with Altarum and author of the report. That means they don't receive the financial and social assistance provided to foster families. 

They include Christina and Kenneth Wasilewski of Riverview, who are raising their grandson, 4-year-old Shane, and granddaughter, Skyler, 5. 

In February, Christina Wasilewski, 47, started Caregiver Cafe, a twice monthly support group for grandparents raising their grandchildren. As many as 25 people have turned out for some meetings. 

"We typically have a lot of people come out because of the opioid crisis," she said. "They’re just finding themselves in the middle of this whirlwind."  

Christina Wasilewski, right, gets the thumbprint of her grandson, Hunter Wasilewski,, 4, while painting Christmas ornaments at the Wasilewski home in Riverview, Mich. on Dec. 11, 2018.  From left are grandkids, Skyler Thompson, 5, Shane Thompson, 4, and Kyle Wasilewski, 2, and Ken Wasilewski.  Christina and Ken Wasilewski are bringing up two of their grandkids, Skyler and Shane Thompson, and often take care of two other grandkids, Hunter and Kyle Wasilewski.

Michigan is among six states without a de facto parenting law to ensure that people raising children who are not their own have a modicum of parental rights. Grandparents raising grandchildren in Michigan — as well as in Illinois, Iowa, Tennessee, Utah and Vermont — lack even the rights needed to seek medical care for their grandchildren or enroll them in school.

Such grandparents can obtain a waiver from their adult child granting them custodial rights over their grandchildren. But even a waiver can be problematic in cases where the adult child can't be located, or is uncooperative or estranged. 

In her interviews with Michigan grandparents, Stanik found that many are grieving the death or mental illness of their adult child, while caring for their offspring's children. They often cope with a profound sense of loss over the path their adult child has taken.

Michigan continues to see a rise in opioid-related deaths, though the rate of increase slowed in 2017, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Opioid-connected deaths rose 8.7 percent to 1,941 last year from 1,786 in 2016, which was a slower growth rate than the 35 percent jump in opioid-related overdose deaths from the 1,320 mortalities in 2015.

In many cases, grandparents' lives are upended by a call from Child Protective Services. Some are forced to call authorities themselves. They may be simultaneously caring for their own elderly parents. And nearly all are stretched thin by exhaustion and financial stress. 

An unexpected detour

Christina and Kenneth Wasilewski were traveling on vacation nearly three years ago when they became concerned about Shane and Skyler. 

They found out their 28-year-old daughter, who has mental illness, had left her children in the care of their paternal grandparents in Ohio. The children's father, 27, was in jail on drug charges. 

"The father and the family would not return any of our calls, so we just showed up at their house unannounced," recalled Christina Wasilewski.

The couple detoured to Ohio and found their granddaughter in good condition. But the the paternal grandparents wouldn't allow them to see Shane, then 15 months old. When the baby was finally located, with help from children's protective services and law enforcement in Ohio, the toddler showed signs of severe abuse and was immediately transported to a hospital. 

"He had burns on the top of his head, lacerations on his hands from tips of fingers to web of hands, and deep lacerations on his bottom," Christina Wasilewski said. 

After three days in Ohio, authorities there asked the Wasilewskis if they could take custody of the children. So the couple returned home from vacation with two grandchildren in tow.

Their daughter now lives in West Virginia. Though she returns to Michigan sporadically, she hasn't seen the children in a year.

"It’s heart-wrenching, because even though she’s an adult, she’s not making good choices," Wasilewski said. 

Helping other grandparents

Grandparents who become full-time caregivers to grandchildren suddenly find challenges to obtain vital services like health care and mental health counseling.

They also cope with emotional fallout and changing family dynamics because other family members may resent the time and attention given to the custodial grandchildren. 

 "Very few of us have just one child that we raise," said Wasilewski, who continues to babysit for her son's two children, 2-year-old Kyle and 4-year-old Hunter, even while raising her daughter's two children full-time.

"You’re raising one of your children’s children and then when your other kids need help, they don’t understand," she added. "We’re parents to two of them and then grandparents to two of them.

"We call them the 'bonus children.' They're the grandkids that we don't raise full-time."

The Caregiver Cafe group that Wasilewski started advocates for public policies, such as de facto parenting laws, that support grandparents who are raising their grandchildren.

The caregiver group has partnered with The Guidance Center and other organizations to host the Fourth Open Forum Discussion with state representatives and legal organizations from 6:30 pm to 8 pm, on March 7, at the University of Michigan-Dearborn Education Building North, 19000 Hubbard Drive in Dearborn. 

"Our system as a whole is messed up. It tears at my heart," Wasilewski said. "Everyone keeps saying children are resilient, but only to a point.

"We’re taking over where our children are failing, but who’s going to take care of their kids?  We’ll be dead and gone. When do their rights come into play?"  


Twitter: @kbouffardDN


Caregiver Cafe

  • It is a support group for grandparents raising grandchildren that meets the third Thursday of every month at Walter White Community Resource Center, 550 Eaton Street, River Rouge.
  • Fourth Wednesday of every month, Southgate Community Resource Center, 18635 Bowie, Southgate.
  • All meeting are from 9:30 a.m. until 11 a.m., and children are welcome.
  • For information, call 734-785-7705 ext. 7035