Wednesday, September 30, 2020
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More grandmoms raising kids. Why? Opioids.

I met a 30-year-old Baltimore County woman—I’ll call her Rachel—several years ago who had a 2-year-old daughter being raised by her grandmother and her grandmother’s new boyfriend. That was the arrangement because a Maryland family court had ruled Rachel was addicted to drugs, including painkillers and heroin, and wasn’t a fit parent.

From “Behavioral Health Trends in the U.S.” [2014 National Survey] (

Addiction’s a nationwide problem that affects millions of kids. Increasing numbers are being raised by grandparents, according to a story by Tara García Mathewson in the Hechinger Report, largely because many of their biological parents are addicted to prescription painkillers. More than 2 million Americans were estimated to be struggling with addiction to prescription opioid pain relievers in 2012, she wrote.

In testimony before the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, Dr Nora D Volkow explained why opioid painkillers are addictive.

“Prescription opioids are one of the three main broad categories of medications that present abuse liability, the other two being stimulants and central nervous system (CNS) depressants,” she said. Factors that make them available “include drastic increases in the number of prescriptions written and dispensed, greater social acceptability for using medications for different purposes, and aggressive marketing by pharmaceutical companies. These factors together have helped create the broad ‘environmental availability’ of prescription medications in general and opioid analgesics in particular.”

The problem of painkiller addiction has a big impact on teen lives. In 2014, 467,000 adolescents were current nonmedical users of painkillers, and 168,000 were addicted to prescription pain relievers, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which is based in Rockville, Maryland. In that same year, an estimated 28,000 adolescents had used heroin in the past year, and an estimated 16,000 were current heroin users.

Rachel dropped out of high school and has been working at assorted jobs ever since. Jobs have included hamburger joints, dollar stores, and even a few restaurants. She was fired at one restaurant because, according to three waitresses I interviewed, she was handing out prescription drugs in the bathroom and on breaks.

Grandparents who raise kids of addicted parents have saved the government some money in terms of foster care—about $4 billion every year, according to Generations United, a DC-based nonprofit focused on an intergenerational approach to policy. But the increase has exceeded what policymakers expected and keeps getting bigger.

“We all anticipated an increase in the multigenerational, or intergenerational, homes and kinship families as a result of the recession, but I think it has been surprising,” the Hechinger Report quoted Stefanie Sprow, the Children’s Defense Fund’s deputy director for child welfare and mental health, as saying. “We passed that years ago and we’re still seeing this rise in kinship families and intergenerational families.”

Perhaps grandparents raising kids who can’t be adequately raised by their own parents is a good thing for those kids, too, in addition to taxpayers.

Justin Fenton of the Baltimore Sun reported today that the body of one 16-year-old, who started out being a drug dealer when he was still a boy in Cecil County, Maryland, was found a year ago in a stream, a year after he had been killed by one of his customers.

Another teen was reportedly placed in a dumpster and removed to a landfill after being crushed beyond recognition, and the same man is now serving a 30-year sentence in a Maryland correctional facility for their murder.

Too bad they didn’t have a grandparent who could raise them right. At least in Rachel’s case, she’s not dead—yet. But I have this insane fear that one day, I’m going to dial her number and get no answer for weeks on end. Like the two teenagers in Cecil County, her story will also go unreported and unnoticed for years as it makes its way into a government statistic.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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