As Opioids Push Grandparents Into Parenting, Pennsylvania Lends a Hand

Assistance for grandparents who are raising grandchildren -- a family dynamic that is becoming more common because of the opioid drug crisis -- is officially on the way.

By Ford Turner

Assistance for grandparents who are raising grandchildren -- a family dynamic that is becoming more common because of the opioid drug crisis -- is officially on the way.

Two bills that passed unanimously in the Pennsylvania House and Senate and are intended to help those grandparents were signed into law Tuesday by Gov. Tom Wolf.

"We applaud the grandparents that step up for this," said Rep. Kathy Watson, a Bucks County Republican who chairs the House Children and Youth Committee. "You plan for your retirement, but nowhere do you plan to raise another family."

More than 5,600 people died in Pennsylvania of drug overdoses in 2017. Many were parents, and thousands of others who survived overdoses have had their ability to raise children compromised by addiction.

Increasingly, grandparents are being forced by the plight of their grandchildren to step back into the role of parent.

Watson sponsored a bill that calls for establishment of a website and a toll-free hotline that will act as a clearinghouse for resources to help grandparents.

Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski, a Luzerne County Democrat, sponsored a separate bill to make it easier for grandparents to get temporary guardianship of grandchildren whose parents are unable to care for them mainly due to substance abuse issues.

The action will allow grandparents to make decisions for their grandchildren both vital and basic, such as taking them to a doctor or enrolling them in school.

Pashinski said that he first became familiar with the trend when he attended meetings of the Grandparents Raising Grandchildren support group in Wilkes-Barre and heard stories of children being left in dangerous settings by parents too deep in drug addiction to raise them safely.

In recent years he and other legislators have heard similar stories from grandparents struggling to care for their grandchildren, he said.

The point of the new laws is to help ensure those grandparents have the support, information and legal rights they need, and that their grandchildren have the best upbringing possible, Pashinski said.

He estimates there are 82,000 grandparents in Pennsylvania caring for about 89,000 grandchildren, a number that is rising as the opioid epidemic continues. He said they save the state about $1 billion each year by keeping them out of the foster care system.

Watson, referring to Pashinski's bill, said that it gets really murky legally when grandparents whose child has been debilitated by heroin addiction try to take over the raising of their grandchildren without going through a court process.

And, she said, the process itself can be painful.

"Nobody wants to go into court and have their child declared unfit," she said.

The House and Senate also recently passed a bill to direct the Joint State Government Commission to study the trend and report its findings so lawmakers have a more exact idea on how many grandparents and grandchildren are affected, Pashinski said.

In a press release, Wolf praised grandparents who step up to care for grandchildren.

"We need to make sure they have our full support as caregivers and legal guardians of children," Wolf said.

(c)2018 the Reading Eagle (Reading, Pa.)

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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