Supporting Grandparents Raising Grandchildren, a Phenomenon Fueled by the Opioid Epidemic

By: Senator Susan M. Collins

Every child deserves a safe and loving home, a family to provide support, stability, and hugs.  When birth parents are unable to care for their children, grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts and uncles, and other family members often step forward.  Their answer to this unanticipated challenge is unconditional love.


This challenge has become a crisis due to the epidemic of opioid abuse that is ravaging our country.  There were more than 64,000 deaths from drug overdose nationwide in 2016 – numbers that exceed the lives lost to car accidents, breast cancer, or a host of other causes.


The statistics are shocking and heartbreaking.  Last year, in addition to a record-high 418 overdose deaths in Maine, nearly 1,000 babies in our State – about eight percent of all births – were born to women addicted to opioids and other drugs. In the United States, a baby is born with an opioid addiction every 25 minutes, more than two per hour.


In this crisis, as in past crises, grandparents are coming to the rescue.  Grandparents raising grandkids together with the child’s parents can support healthy aging and be a positive experience for all involved.  Across the country, however, some 2.6 million children are being raised solely by grandparents.  These “custodial grandparents” are called upon for a number of reasons, including alcohol and drug addiction, physical abuse, incarceration, divorce, financial difficulties, military deployment, and even death.  In Maine, the number of children being raised solely by their grandparents increased by 24 percent between 2010 and 2015.


Last year, as Chairman of the Senate Aging Committee, I chaired a hearing on the growing phenomenon of grandparents raising grandchildren.  The purpose of our hearing was to recognize these “grandfamilies,” and to explore what can be done to assist them as they take on this unanticipated challenge motivated by their love of their grandchildren.


A clear message from that hearing was the need for these kinship parents to have greater access to information about the resources available to assist them.  As a result, I introduced the Supporting Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Act, bipartisan legislation that would create a federal task force charged with developing and disseminating information designed to help kinship parents.  This legislation would assist families with navigating the school system, planning for their families’ future, addressing mental health issues for themselves and the children, and building social and support networks. 


This vital legislation achieved a major step forward on Feb. 28 when the Senate Health Committee, on which I serve, passed it by a unanimous vote.  It is essential that the full Senate swiftly pass this bill so that our grandfamilies can get the help they need.


Among the witnesses at the Aging Committee hearing last year was Bette Hoxie, a custodial grandparent and a board member of the Adoptive and Foster Families of Maine and the Kinship Program, based in Orono.  She testified that of the 3,100 families her organization works with statewide, 85 percent are headed by grandparents or great-grandparents, many due to opioid abuse.  From health care to clothing and cribs, she told the Committee of the struggles grandparents – including herself – face in the unexpected challenge of raising young children.


At a time in life when most seniors are looking forward to enjoying more leisure time, these grandparents have found themselves as parents once again. They are waking up in the middle of the night to feed babies and planning afternoons around soccer practice, rather than playing golf or volunteering.


Raising a second family also involves costs that they had never anticipated as they budgeted for what was supposed to be their golden years. They are tapping into retirement savings, going back to work, or staying in the workforce longer just to make ends meet. In addition to the financial toll, raising children later in life presents social, emotional, legal, and other challenges.


As we confront the opioid crisis through increased prevention and treatment efforts, we must support the family members who fill the vital role of parenting.  Despite the challenges, when asked if they regret taking on the caregiver role, the vast majority of these grandparents say: no. They know they are making a difference. They are providing love, stability, and a home to children who might otherwise have to live with strangers.  As one Maine grandparent said in a television interview, “In the end, it’s worth it to know that they are happy and safe.”


Throughout history, grandparents have stepped in to provide safe and secure homes to their grandchildren, replacing traumatic pasts with loving and hopeful futures.  The opioid crisis has called on grandparents in even greater numbers.  The Supporting Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Act would help those grandparents who have stepped up to ensure a better life for their children’s children.