Grandparents raising grandchildren: a growing trend fueled by the opioid crisis

By Sen. Susan M. Collins | Apr 21, 2017

The crisis of opioid abuse that is ravaging our state and our country is truly an epidemic. There were 376 deaths from drug overdose here in Maine last year, more than 52,000 nationwide — numbers that exceed the lives lost to car accidents, breast cancer, or a host of other causes.

Those statistics are shocking. Here is one that is heartbreaking: Last year, nearly 1,000 babies in Maine — that’s about 8 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 who help raise grandkids together with the child’s parents can support healthy aging and be a positive experience for all involved. Across the country, however, some 2.5 million children are being raised solely by grandparents. These “custodial grandparents” are called on to help 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.

The Senate Aging Committee, which I chair, recently held a hearing on the growing phenomenon of grandparents raising grandchildren because the parents are struggling with addiction and can no longer care for their children. The purpose of our hearing was to recognize the grandparents raising grandkids and to explore what can be done to assist them as they take on this unanticipated challenge motivated by their love of their grandchildren.

As one of our expert witnesses testified, from crack cocaine in the 1980s to opioids todays, drug addiction by one or both parents is one of the primary causes of these “grandfamilies.” Also among our witnesses was Bette Hoxie, executive director of Adoptive and Foster Families of Maine and the Kinship Program, which has offices in Orono and Saco. Of the 3,100 families Bette’s organization works with statewide, 85 percent are headed by grandparents or great-grandparents, many because of 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 were 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. It can be socially difficult to become a full-time caregiver as an older adult, often isolated from friends. It can be emotionally difficult to go from being a grandmother who spoils the kids to becoming the disciplinarian who makes sure homework is finished.

At the same time, it can also be difficult to navigate the relationship with the children’s birth parents. The legal challenges are tough. The process of attaining custody is complex, lengthy, and costly. Without a proper legal arrangement, routine tasks such as enrolling kids in school or obtaining medical care can be trying.

Becoming a full-time caregiver can also take a toll on the health of the grandparents. The new caregiver role challenges both the physical and mental health of grandparents, resulting in higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, and depression.

This demonstration of love by family members must be accompanied by innovative policy solutions. Some of those solutions were included in the 21st Century Cures Act that was signed into law late last year. In addition to robust support for biomedical research to combat disease, this sweeping bipartisan law includes provisions I authored to address the opioid crisis. The bill includes $1 billion over two years for grants to states to supplement opioid abuse prevention and treatment activities, including prescription drug monitoring programs, prevention activities, training for health care providers, and improving access to opioid treatment programs. This money will benefit every state, including Maine.

Last summer, the Senate passed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, or CARA, which I cosponsored. This legislation will help address this burgeoning public health crisis through a multifaceted approach that expands treatment, prevention, law enforcement, and recovery efforts in our communities nationwide. It includes two important provisions I authored to increase research into non-opioid therapy for pain management and for the development of care plans for drug-dependent infants.

Despite the challenges, when asked if they regret taking on the caregiver role, a 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 recent 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 epic numbers. As a society, it is essential that we do all we can to help those grandparents who have stepped up to help ensure a better life for their children’s children.

Republican Susan M. Collins is one of Maine's two U.S. senators.

Comments (4)
Posted by: Maggie Trout | Apr 22, 2017 17:56

Not that Collins' press release is decipherable as to intent, but not all grandparents are fit to care for grandchildren, and weren't fit to begin with as parents.  Pushing for one's children bear more children is one of the most heinous aspects of our society in the 21st century.  Not all people should have children.  It does not make one less of a woman, nor less of a man.  In fact, the opposite is true, regardless of where one sits on the socio-economic spectrum.  "Love" is often proclaimed by parents and relatives who beat their children; so much for that.


This bit:  "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 epic numbers. As a society, it is essential that we do all we can to help those grandparents who have stepped up to help ensure a better life for their children’s children."  Where in this release does it indicate just who the "we" is, and the "what is, " that is being done to assist grandparents who have "stepped up." Nowhere.  All of this rhetoric is just that, with the addiction of absolutely useless emotionalism.


There are far too many people who benefit from keeping cycles of poverty, abuse, reproduction, and disease going.  Few people can tolerate not having someone else further down on the "ladder of success" than they are.  How else would so many be able to mindlessly babble with the rhetoric that keeps them in political office, and in positions of authority, whether political or otherwise.

Posted by: Mary A McKeever | Apr 22, 2017 17:33

I guess I am getting old and do not know what is the problem of grandparents taking on the role of caregiver. It seems to me it was what every caring grandmother did in the past and with out monetary subsidies, They just did it as all love and honorable grandparents did. Perhaps "welfare" gets too much attention. Most families just do. With love and pride for their extended families.There was a time in the past when Welfare" was a dirty word. And now it seems like a right of passage.

Posted by: Nancy Baker | Apr 22, 2017 08:19

Let's be clear, Senator Collins. The rallying cry of your house and senate colleagues to repeal and replace the ACA will result in fewer options of treatment and support for those affected by the opioid epidemic.

Posted by: Maggie Trout | Apr 21, 2017 11:31

This has nothing to do with caring for grandparents who care for children, something that has occurred since humans walked on two legs.  There is nothing here about offering support for the grandparents, or other relatives, and support that will not impact any benefits they may receive, or cause them to incur higher taxes.  Public Health Nurses serving the communities in decent numbers is what is needed, and yet their services are all but abolished.  Public Health Nurses do not only deal with new mothers - it's always the mother, right -


This is a very odd press release.  Also, not all addicted individuals are from families without resources.  But could a press release be more devoid of meaning and value.

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