J’Vien Hurston-Herron, age 3, is at ground zero in the struggle to overcome the opioid epidemic. His mother and father are addicts.
And their parents, Jeffrey and Annette Gates, are stepping in for J’Vien’s parents.
Christina Wasilewski’s daughter is an addict who has been transient. Christina and her husband, Kenneth, recently won custody of granddaughter Skyler Thompson, age 5, and grandson, Shane Thompson, age 4.
These two cases are among thousands of grandparents raising children of opioid addicts in Wayne County.
According to AARP, suddenly grandparents across the nation are being forced to step in and take care of grandchildren, often after experiencing significant trauma. With interrupted retirement plans and parenting skills a little rusty, these grandparents struggle to provide a stable, loving home for their grandchildren, and hopefully prevent them from adopting the behaviors of their parents.
"A lot of us are thrown into this situation," says Wasilewski, president of the Downriver Michigan Chapter of Grandparents Raising Grandchildren.
"When the children come to us, often they don't have adequate medical coverage. There are no resources in place to help us navigate the system to provide mental health treatment and help them get over the trauma of being separated from biological parents,” she says “Once we do find health providers, sometimes if you don't have Medicaid you're ineligible. When you get tossed into this, basically you're on your own, unless you are a traditional foster care placement."
Wasilewski says research provided by the Guidance Center, a Southgate-based mental health services group, indicates that nearly 44,000 grandparents are raising their grandchildren in Wayne County.
The Guidance Center in Southgate. Photo by David Lewinski.
"I feel that number is probably a lot higher because there's a stigma attached to this,” she says, “People say 'What have we done wrong as parents that would make our child turn to drugs or just make such horrific choices and turn their backs on their own children?' Some people try to keep it under wraps that they're basically raising their grandchildren."
The Guidance Center hosts a monthly meeting of the grandparents' group.
"We bring together grandparents and relative caregivers in this situation," says Wasilewski. "Originally it started out as grandparents raising grandchildren. But we found out, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters are raising (children) of younger siblings."
She says the group spans generations, from people in their late 30s to those in their 70s. The meetings include presentations on mental and physical health, the impact of trauma, and parenting tips.
"We had a yoga instructor teach 'cherry yoga' to bring down our stress levels," she says. "It's a place for grandparents to come together where they don't feel judged or feel that there's anything they did wrong that made their child make these choices."
Getting custody of grandchildren is a major hurdle. Parents need to sign a power of attorney document so grandparents can arrange medical treatment for the children and enroll them in school. It took nearly four years for Christina and Kenneth Wasilewski to get custody of their grandchildren.
Having raised two children, Jeffrey and Annette planned for a gradual, simple retirement, finding time for themselves. Then, J’Vian needed a safe, stable home. Not only were they were pulled from retirement, but like their peers, were asked to prevent the next generation of addiction.
Grandparents and grandchildren create together at the Guidance Center. Photo by David Lewinski.
"We thought this was going to be 'our time'," Jeffrey says. "We made plans for just us; we were going to go to the movies, have lunch dates. Here comes J’Vien and all of the plans we made are gone."
J’Vian has been diagnosed as "emotionally separated," Annette says. Jeffrey is perplexed. "How is he emotionally separated? We try to show him as much love and affection as we can. By him being here he gets all of our attention," he wonders,
Wasilewski didn’t understand the frail psychology of her grandchildren when she took them in, either.
"Thankfully the Guidance Center offered an all-day seminar on parenting and trauma. It helped me understand that her brother being physically abused was traumatic, but multiple homes... never knowing where she was going to sleep… Everything builds upon each prior event.
"I hear over and over that children are resilient," she says. "Children are only resilient to an end. You can't keep exposing them to trauma after trauma, uncertainty, instability, and expect that they are fine, happy, well-adjusted citizens once they become adults. Statistically, that is not possible. They're the underdog as it is, coming from abuse situations, from incarcerated parents, from drug-addicted parents.
"We are raising children who are the youngest victims of the opioid crisis," Wasilewski says. "The trauma has an effect on their ability to learn, to engage constructively, to trust, to allow them to develop in a way that other children are developing."
Grandparents Caring for Grandchildren is advocating for the introduction of a "De Facto" law in Michigan -- which exists in other states -- that will recognize grandparents immediately upon taking custody of their grandchildren. This is important for many reasons, not the least of which ensuring that the children are covered by Medicaid.
This summer Congress passed the "Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Act" which will establish a Federal Advisory Council to support grandparents and other relatives raising children. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will be the lead agency coordinating the work of the council. Its charge is to identify, promote, coordinate and disseminate information about resources and best practices to help relative caregivers meet the health, education, nutrition and other needs of the children in their care, as well as maintain their own physical and mental health and emotional well-being.
Nationwide, more than 2.6 million people are raising grandchildren, according to census data analyzed by the AARP. The number has been rising due to more drug-addicted parents who are jailed, forced into treatment centers or die from an overdose.
"Unfortunately it is a grim picture if we don't make some changes," Wasilewski says. "These children that we're raising now -- that everyone says are resilient -- exposing them repeatedly to parents who are not in the best interest of the child, when these children start coming of age, 16, 17, 18 and they start having children, who will help with them? We haven't seen anything yet. If we can't educate these children and get them help now to break this cycle, our country hasn't seen anything yet."
Human service agencies like the Guidance Center, which provide support, education, and mental health services for grandparents and their children, are critical "to breaking the cycle of addiction," Wasilewski says.
This article is part of the Culture of Health series about programs that foster a healthy, equitable culture in Wayne County. It is made possible with funding from Wayne County. Read more of the series here.