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Opioid Crisis Leaves Many Older Americans Raising Their Grandchildren

Updated: Jun 6, 2020

Child custody orders, guardianship or adoption are necessary steps to secure these caregiving relationships and give children much needed stability. Family members must decide what legal arrangements work best for them and take action.

The current opioid crisis is the worst drug epidemic the United States has ever seen. Drug overdoses resulted in 52,000 deaths nationwide last year (more fatalities than car accidents or breast cancer). An estimated 20 million Americans are addicted to substances, generating costs in excess of $750 billion related to crime, medical services and lost productivity. Among those impacted are the children of addicts, who are left without caregivers when their parents either abandon them, go to jail, get hospitalized or die as a result of their drug abuse.

An estimated 2.9 million grandparents are raising their grandchildren in the United States.

The number of relatives raising family members, especially grandparents raising grandkids, has risen dramatically in response to the opioid crisis. Colorado law and regulations governing the Department of Human Services establish a preference for placing children who are removed from their parents with relatives as an alternative to foster care. However, for every child in foster care placed with relatives, 20 others are being raised by relatives outside the foster care system.

Raising kids is expensive. For grandparents who are approaching retirement, taking on the care and custody of their grandchildren can put pressure on an already fixed income. Others are forced to return to work and abandon their plans for a more relaxed lifestyle. But for most grandparents, turning their back on their grandchildren simply isn't an option. Minimal financial support is provided for kinship caregivers who accept placement of children through the dependency and neglect court system, but almost no monetary help is available for the vast majority of family members who step in to take care of their relatives on their own.

A guardianship or child custody case (also called an allocation of parental responsibilities) can result in orders for child support to be paid by the parents or at least allow the grandparents, aunt and uncle, or other relative caregivers to obtain child-only TANF, childcare assistance, health care coverage or other benefits to assist with child-related costs.

In addition to monetary benefits, a guardianship of a minor, child custody or kinship adoption can provide a child with a secure, legally protected relationship with the grandparent or relative caregiver who is actually raising them. This sense of belonging can be critical to a child’s development. Children of substance-abusing parents have a high risk of developing physical and mental health and behavioral problems. By contrast, secure attachment with a caregiver is strongly associated with positive outcomes including better relationship skills, emotional regulation, reduced aggression and higher grades at school.

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