How the opi­oid cri­sis is chang­ing the Amer­i­can fam­ily


How car­ing grand­par­ents are rais­ing the chil­dren of opi­oid ad­dicts

Rais­ing three daugh­ters just out­side of Phoenix, Ronda and Bob Loon thought they did ev­ery­thing right. Bob, a busi­ness­man, made time to vol­un­teer in his girls’ class­rooms and coach their sports teams. “Never missed a game,” he says. Ronda, a stay-ath­ome mom, was a con­stant at school events and planned her kids’ sleep­overs and birth­day par­ties. But once their youngest daugh­ter, Michaela, grad­u­ated high school, they couldn’t keep her from fall­ing for “bad guys” or the drugs they some­times of­fered her. By age 19, Michaela had be­come a sin­gle mom to son Ry­der and ad­dicted to meth and heroin. “In the blink of an eye, things changed,” says Ronda. With both of the boy’s par­ents in and out of re­hab, it’s “Grammy” and “Pop” who Ry­der, now 4, snug­gles with in bed at night—“he sleeps with his hand on one of us, a se­cu­rity thing,” says Ronda, 57—while she and Bob, 54, worry about start­ing fresh as par­ents to a preschooler. “We think about how old we’ll be when Ry­der starts school and whether Bob will be phys­i­cally able to coach Ry­der’s sports teams,” ad­mits Ronda. “it’s like he’s

be­ing pun­ished be­cause we’re old,” says Bob. “God meant for young peo­ple to have chil­dren.”

The Loons are two in a grow­ing club that no one wants to join: par­ents of the ca­su­al­ties of Amer­ica’s opi­oid epi­demic who are step­ping up to raise the chil­dren—their grand­chil­dren—that ad­dicts leave be­hind whether be­cause they are in the throes of ad­dic­tion, strug­gling through re­hab, in jail or dead. More than 258,000 chil­dren are in today’s foster-care sys­tem due to al­co­hol or drug use by par­ents, and of those, 1 in 3 chil­dren is liv­ing with rel­a­tives, of­ten grand­par­ents. And their num­bers have grown as the opi­oid cri­sis has, rising 4.8 per­cent be­tween 2006 and ’16. For many, tak­ing on a whole new life­time of responsibility—of­ten for chil­dren bear­ing the phys­i­cal and men­tal wounds of ex­po­sure to drugs and al­co­hol—can be over­whelm­ing. “We pray a lot,” says Madi­son Heights, Mich., home­maker Pamela Wentzel, 60. Wentzel is now “Mom” to her 5-year-old grand­son Jack­son, who suf­fers se­vere be­hav­ioral and de­vel­op­men­tal prob­lems re­lated to his mother’s opi­oid use while preg­nant. “We have to de­pend on God to get us through this,” says Wentzel, “be­cause we can’t do it on our own strength.”

Grand­par­ents, even though older and some­times on fixed in­comes, of­fer the chil­dren of ad­dicts a far bet­ter shot at a fu­ture than non-rel­a­tive foster par­ents, says Donna Butts, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Gen­er­a­tions United, a Washington, D.c.-based fam­ily ad­vo­cacy group. “Grand­par­ents pro­vide this pro­tec­tive web of love and roots and hope,” says Butts, “whereas chil­dren who come into the foster-care sys­tem or into the care of law en­force­ment lose that sense of con­nec­tion with their fam­ily and who they are and who loves them.” The prob­lem, she says, is the lack of in­sti­tu­tional sup­port for grand­par­ents who step up. Although Congress, for 2018 and ’19, pro­vided $40 mil­lion to state pro­grams as­sist­ing grand­par­ents and other “kin­ship” care­givers, Butts says much more is needed: “Grand­par­ents are the safety net for the chil­dren as wel­fare and law-en­force­ment of­fi­cials move on to other as­pects of the opi­oid cri­sis.”

Jacque­line Elm, of Kal­ispell, Mont., came faceto-face with that cruel re­al­ity in 2003 when she pushed her way into the home where her daugh­ter Heather’s two tod­dlers were stay­ing with their dad. Jacque­line found her grand­son Caleb, then 4, and grand­daugh­ter Fury, not yet 2, shut alone in a bed­room. Fury’s legs were cov­ered in dog bites. Nei­ther the father nor Heather, whose opi­oid and heroin use Jacque­line traces to her daugh­ter’s use of mi­graine med­i­ca­tion, were with the chil­dren. “I took them both and drove to a CPS coun­sel­ing fa­cil­ity,” she says. “They handed me some blan­kets and some pa­per­work and said, ‘Here you go.’ ”

Just like that the now-59-year-old mother of five adult chil­dren was start­ing again with two lit­tle ones, who, due to drug ex­po­sure in the womb,

strug­gle with anx­i­ety, men­tal health is­sues, learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties and speech deficits—and were joined soon enough by a baby sis­ter, Ella. “We have drained our re­tire­ment sav­ings to raise these chil­dren,” Jacque­line says. To keep up with the bills, her hus­band, Stephen, 76, a re­tired Air Force colonel, worked at Lowe’s un­til re­cently, when he started to need a wheel­chair. “He worked,” Jacque­line says, “un­til he couldn’t work any­more.”

With two grown daugh­ters strug­gling with ad­dic­tion and six grand­chil­dren in need of a sta­ble home, brick­layer Don Murray, 52, com­mutes 180 miles round-trip to work in Cleve­land ev­ery day. “We live check to check,” says his home­maker wife, Beth, 50. The Loudonville, Ohio, cou­ple’s sav­ings for a new car went to three sets of bunk beds. And if one of the kids—who range in age from 4 to 13—vol­un­teers to bring cook­ies to a school cel­e­bra­tion, it can set back the fam­ily’s whole food bud­get. “I try to save a lit­tle bit for those ex­tras,” says Beth. “I don’t want them to feel left out.” Already the chil­dren have been teased and stig­ma­tized, Beth says. “One child said, ‘Yeah I heard about your mom, she’s a drug ad­dict and should’ve died.’ My grand­son came home and burst into tears.”

The taunt’s truth makes it all the more cruel. “I haven’t slept since Au­gust of 2015, wor­ry­ing,” says Beth. That was when her daugh­ter Saman­tha, 28, de­vel­oped an ad­dic­tion after tak­ing pain meds for the C-sec­tion delivery of her son Jaxon. “Next

thing I know it’s full-blown ad­dic­tion, and you think, ‘That’s cer­tain death,’ ” says Beth. She and Don now have cus­tody of Jaxon, 4, his brother Dar­rell, 9, and the four chil­dren of her older daugh­ter, Heather, 32. Find­ing sup­port at Nara­non meetings with other par­ents, Beth wants oth­ers to un­der­stand that ad­dicts aren’t bad peo­ple. “We were a happy fam­ily, ac­tive in our kids’ lives,” she says. “There’s no worse feel­ing than watch­ing your child dis­ap­pear be­fore your eyes.”

That’s how it was, too, for Cathy and Gary Over­field, both 64, who took cus­tody of their grand­son Do­minic in 2012, when he was al­most 10. His mother, their daugh­ter Amy, had never even touched al­co­hol, Cathy says. But when Amy’s mar­riage fell apart, “she fell apart with it.” Amy fa­tally over­dosed on opi­oids in 2015 at age 41.

While griev­ing her daugh­ter, Cathy also mourns all that Do­minic’s been de­prived. “At 16, he’s more ma­ture than some 30-year-old men I know. He saw a pretty ugly part of life, and now he doesn’t have grand­par­ents who get to spoil him and cud­dle and snug­gle,” she says. “We have to dis­ci­pline and check the home­work.”

Home­work duty is still years away—but already a worry—for Feli­cia Cren­shaw who, at 53, is now the only mother her 4-year-old grand­daugh­ter Madi­son has. The child was just 22 months old when her mother, Cren­shaw’s daugh­ter Tay­lor, 21, died of an over­dose. A neigh­bor found the baby sit­ting on Tay­lor’s dead body. “You grieve for the what­ifs,” says Cren­shaw, a fi­nan­cial pro­fes­sional who no

‘Drug ad­dic­tion is still con­sid­ered shame­ful, so a lot of us suf­fer in si­lence’ —FELI­CIA CREN­SHAW

longer sees re­tire­ment in her fu­ture. “Peer pres­sure, bul­ly­ing, dat­ing, driv­ing a car—i’ll be go­ing back through all of that.” She also wor­ries about wor­ry­ing too much. “I do not want Madi­son to grow up and look back on her life and say, ‘All I re­mem­ber of my Nana is that she was sad a lot and cried a lot.’ I want to be a cham­pion for Madi­son.”

Con­stant fear of re­lapse by their grown chil­dren breeds a tough love nec­es­sary to pro­tect their grand­chil­dren. For Beth Murray, that means she

‘It’s so good for the kids who can say, “Nana’s and Grandpa’s— that’s my safe house”’ —JACQUE­LINE ELM

stocks at-home urine tests for her daugh­ters, one of whom is still in treat­ment. The other is a re­cent program grad­u­ate. “I’ll pop a drug test on them my­self,” Beth says. “I have their chil­dren here, and I’m not go­ing to jeop­ar­dize them for no­body, not even my own chil­dren.”

Michaela Loon, who spoke to Peo­ple over the sum­mer but has since re­lapsed and re­turned to treat­ment, knows her own par­ents’ tough love. “It sucked hav­ing my par­ents yank Ry­der away from me,” she says, “but I’m su­per-grate­ful for it. It meant he wasn’t dragged along in my ad­dic­tion, see­ing hor­ri­ble things while I was get­ting high.” Her par­ents now vol­un­teer with a nee­dle-ex­change program, and Ronda Loon also runs a web­site for moms of ad­dicts and has taken a job at a re­hab fa­cil­ity. “We went through the anger and the ‘How did this hap­pen?’ ” says Ronda. “Then we asked our­selves, ‘How are we go­ing to get through this?’ My way was to get in­volved with help­ing other ad­dicts.”

Nearly 15 years after tak­ing in her daugh­ter’s chil­dren, Jacque­line Elm too has found new pur­pose in her un­ex­pected sit­u­a­tion. She went back to school for a bach­e­lor’s de­gree in so­cial work and a li­cense in ad­dic­tion-coun­sel­ing ed­u­ca­tion, up­end­ing what she and Stephen once en­vi­sioned for their so-called golden years. “We’ll fan­ta­size for a few min­utes, ‘Oh, we could be ly­ing on the beach with mar­gar­i­tas,’ and then we look at each other and go, ‘Yeah, how bor­ing,’ ” says Jacque­line. “What we feel when we see the kids suc­ceed­ing, safe and laugh­ing—that is ev­ery­thing.”

‘Pop’s’ Lit­tle Helper Ronda says she and Bob now “can’t imag­ine life” with­out Ry­der in their care.

Full House Don and Beth Murray (be­low) with grand­sons Dar­rell and Jaxon (left). The Mur­rays are now rais­ing six grand­chil­dren in a house meant for the fam­ily of five they once were. “Find­ing the room and the food are the hard­est things. The boys will eat you out of house and home,” says Beth. “But I vol­un­teered to take them, so we man­age.”

Gary and Cathy Over­field with grand­son Do­minic. Be­fore mov­ing in with his grand­par­ents when he was al­most 10, Do­minic (cen­ter) wit­nessed his mom’s de­scent into drug ad­dic­tion, says Cathy Over­field. “He saw drug deals and drug use. As he rem­i­nisces now, he’ll say, ‘I could’ve turned out to be one of the kids on the street or like So-and-so who we watched get ar­rested.’ ” ‘He Saw a Pretty Ugly Part of Life’

Feli­cia Cren­shaw and grand­daugh­ter Madi­son. ‘Un­less You Walk in Our Shoes, You Can’t Judge Us’ Cren­shaw says her daugh­ter Tay­lor (cen­ter in­set, with Madi­son) was tor­tured by her ad­dic­tion and just couldn’t es­cape. After she fa­tally OD’D in 2016, “the com­ments I got were, ‘Why didn’t you stop her? Shame on you,’ ” Cren­shaw re­calls. “Now, when I look at Madi­son, I see so much hope.”

Jacque­line and Stephen Elm with (from left), Caleb, Ella and Fury. In­set: Stephen teach­ing Ella to tie her shoe in 2013. Jacque­line Elm says her par­ent­ing style has “changed tremen­dously.” She says she and hus­band Stephen en­cour­age and sup­port each child’s in­di­vid­ual pas­sions—caleb’s for me­chan­ics and Fury’s for an­i­mals—“to tap into their unique­ness, ver­sus just let­ting them go with their friends.” ‘How Can I Not Let This Hap­pen Again?’

Pamela and Stan­ley Wentzel with grand­son Jack­son. ‘He Needed Sup­port and Love’ The Wentzels took Jack­son home when he was 1 month old—born with neona­tal ab­sti­nence syn­drome to their daugh­ter Stephanie—and adopted him in 2016. “Jack­son was alone,” Pamela says. “I jumped in and said I’ll take him.”

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