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Opioid epidemic contributes to number of WV’s ‘grandfamilies’


Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Deena and Keith Ellison thought they’d be finished raising children by now. Deena’s kids were under 7, and Keith’s were teenagers when the couple got together in the early 1990s.

Deena Ellison, right, applies mascara for her granddaughter, Jeorgia, as her other granddaughter, Hailea Powell, left, looks on. Deena and her husband Keith have welcomed their grandchildren, Jeorgia and her brother Jackson, into their household as thousands of West Virginians are now doing. Research has shown that substance abuse is the most common reason for children being raised by their grandparents and other close relatives.
(Photo by F. Brian Ferguson)

Now, Deena, 54, and Keith, 63, find themselves parenting again — this time for Deena’s grandchildren, 9-year-old Jeorgia and 14-year-old Jackson.

“He adopted my son when he was 6,” Deena said of her husband. “He had to start over — this is the third time.”

“It’s kind of what I do,” Keith joked.

The Ellisons have played a big role in caring for Jackson and Jeorgia since the beginning. The kids stayed at their grandparents’ home most weekends, school holidays and at least one night during the week since they were little.

Their mother, Deena’s daughter, was a teenager when she became a mom.

“She wasn’t ready,” Deena said.

Three years ago, the Ellisons took on a more formal and permanent role when they became their grandchildren’s legal guardians. Deena said her daughter’s drug addiction made her unable to care for her children.

The Ellisons are not alone. In West Virginia, about 22,000 children live with a relative or close friend without a parent present, according to the nonprofit group Kids Count.

Nationally, the number of children living with grandparents who are responsible for their care grew from 2.5 million to 2.9 million between 2005 and 2015, according to Pew Research Center.

In West Virginia, the number of children in “kinship care” increased from a three-year average of 19,000 for the years 2009 to 2011, to 28,000 for 2013 to 2015, though at last count it was down to 22,000 for 2014 through 2016. Kinship care includes children in the care of all kinds of relatives besides parents, but mostly means grandparents, said Jaia Peterson Lent, deputy executive director for Generations United, an organization that operates the National Center on Grandfamilies.

According to a recent report from Lent’s organization, substance abuse is the most common reason for these “grandfamilies” to come together.

Lent said the number of grandfamilies has increased nationally and specifically in places like West Virginia that have been hit hard by the opioid epidemic. She said she can’t explain West Virginia’s most recent drop in the number of grandfamilies but looks forward to the new data in the fall.

“The increase is steady nationally in recent years and our expectation is it will continue to increase,” Lent wrote in an email. “We do see some sharper increases in other states that have been hit hard like Ohio for example.”

Bonnie Dunn, an extension specialist at the West Virginia State University Extension Service, teaches a class for people like the Ellisons, who are parenting for the second time.

Dunn said she’s taught 49 families so far, and in all but two cases, the grandparents are raising the grandchildren because of drug-related reasons. Some have children who are in prison, others have died or have had their parental rights terminated.

Dunn’s weekly Healthy Grandfamilies program through West Virginia State University is nine sessions long and teaches grandparents about nutrition, legal issues and family dynamics.

Grandparents also learn about social media and technology — issues they didn’t have to think about during their first go at being parents.

“It is not like it was a generation ago to parent, because of dealing with social media issues that these parents are most often not prepared to handle because they don’t know anything about it,” Dunn said.

The group also helps with something more basic: allowing grandparents a place to meet and talk with others going through the same thing.

The grandparents Dunn meets often feel guilt at raising grandchildren after they’ve raised their own kids who now have substance abuse problems and other issues: “[They think], ‘I didn’t do it right the first time, so how am I going to do it right the second time?’”

Dunn tries to encourage them, telling them, “You have a second opportunity to do it again, and the only thing that you can do is love them, provide a roof for them, feed them and do the best you can. They grow up to be adults, and they make their own choices and you cannot control them.”

The Ellisons said they want to make sure their grandchildren have stability. They deserve that, they said.

On a hot evening in late May, the family gathered around the table for dinner. Over take-out pizza and homemade parfaits, they talked about the day.

School was about to let out for the summer. Jeorgia excitedly chattered about her class’s field day events, and Jackson recounted the end-of-year awards he received. It’s a dinner-time ritual they do whenever they can.

For Deena and Keith, raising their grandchildren is not without its challenges.

Deena is putting off retirement, even though she’s worked 23 years for the state. Keith is technically retired but does odd jobs to help make ends meet.

“Jackson starts high school this year, [and] Jeorgia will be in middle school next year,” Deena said. “So four years from now, we’ve got to start looking at college. So retirement — I’m eligible for retirement, but it’s not something I can do.”

They get some government help in the form of child-only TANF and Medicaid cards for the children. The TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) covers only the cost of after-school day care for Jeorgia.

They’re lucky to have an extended family that pitches in with babysitting and other help when they need it.

“We would not be able to do this without our family,” Deena said.

At first Deena and Keith didn’t intend to raise the kids permanently. They had hoped them being taken away would be a wake-up call for Deena’s daughter. The opposite has happened, Deena said.

But now, Deena and Keith said, they wouldn’t want the kids to leave.

“They’re so much a part of our lives that I could not imagine them not being in our house,” Deena said. “There are days when we’re going ‘ah!’ but they’re ours. They’re part of us.”

For more information about the Healthy Grandfamilies program, call Dunn at 304-204-4007.

Editor’s note: Are you part of a grandfamily? The Gazette-Mail is interested in hearing your story. Reach Lori Kersey at 304-348-1240

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