In the winter of 2015 while working for a national children’s advocacy organization here in New Hampshire, I began receiving phone calls from grandparents who are raising their grandchildren. Many of these grandparents became caregivers due of their child's addiction to opiates. They were looking for information to help them, supportive services for their grandchildren, and in many cases financial support as well.
I started looking at state and community resources and found that while there were some, clearly there were not enough supports for these special families. Many of the services and resources had income limits or other restrictions attached, so they were not available to many grandfamilies. There were often many cases where the services they were looking for simply did not exist or grandfamilies were not eligible to receive. Still others would require changes in state law to include grandparents. I now understood their frustration.
It is estimated that there are more than 12,000 New Hampshire grandparents raising their grandchildren. Nationally nearly 2.7 million grandparents are responsible for most of the basic needs of their grandchildren. About 35% of these grandparents are age 60 or older. Fifty-eight percent are still in the workforce, and nearly a quarter have a disability. And more than one in five of these grandparents lives below the poverty line.1 Source: Generations United
A bit later I met a feisty grandmother who asked me what kind of advocacy I was doing for grandparents and their grandchildren. She talked and I listened as she recounted her story and the stories of other grandparents she knew. The stories she shared with me were hard to hear. She invited me to attend a group meeting at one of the Head Start Centers to hear from other grandparents in similar situations.
At that meeting, I learned that children caught up in the opiate crisis are facing very serious and tenuous situations and so are many of their grandparent caregivers. There some common threads that run through each of the stories of the grandparents; they are often unable to find out what assistance is available to their grandchildren and their families, and for those who have or are seeking guardianship of their minor children, they have no standing in court proceedings.
Grandparents are on the front line of the opioid epidemic, often becoming aware of problems before neighbors or the police. Yet at the same time, their rights as grandparents are extremely limited in the eyes of the law. Grandparents have no rights to speak or advocate for what is best for their grandchildren in court. And they have no recourse when passing their grandchildren back into what they know are unsafe situations.
Because of their experiences with their parents, children being raised in grandparent-headed families often display developmental, physical, behavioral, academic, and emotional problems. Some of these problems include depression, anxiety, ADHD, PTSD, health problems, and learning disabilities. Many also experience feelings of anger, rejection, and guilt. The degree to which the grandchildren experience problems varies, although many of them experience multiple problems. Finding services for the children may require hunting down resources on their own, often having to take time off from work or away from the grandchildren who need them.
Soon after the Head Start meeting, I was invited to meet with another group of grandparents facilitated by two of NH’s Family Resource Centers, The River Center and Grapevine. I have been meeting with this group regularly since then. Together we have created a movement of change and action that is having an impact at the legislature, in the media, and more importantly in the homes of the grandfamilies.
These two grandparent groups were my impetus for hosting a Children’s Summit in the fall of 2016. On a warm November afternoon 130 legislators, policy makers, advocates, state agency personnel, community service providers, parents and grandparents came together to learn, share, and think outside of the box. Our goal was to work collaboratively and find potential solutions to make this journey a bit easier for these families and to produce better outcomes for the kids.
Advocacy is about raising our voices for a common cause. Effective advocacy is knowing the who, what, where, when and how of an issue and then combining all of those with the personal stories of those involved for real change.
Because we had brought the right voices to the table we were able to move a very important piece of legislation through the New Hampshire House and Senate that year. It established the legislative Commission to Study Grandfamilies in NH. This Commission brings legislators, government and community agencies, advocates and grandparents together to further address the critical role grandparents play in providing safe, loving, permanent families for children and the policy changes needed to effectively support them.
Today, grandparents have more legal rights in the courts, they have a Kinship Navigator program in many communities across the state, there are many more support groups than the two that were in existence in early 2016, and they have more resources available to them. But we still have along road to walk together.
All of our voices are so important as advocates to help ensure that we have the policies, programs, and funding necessary to strengthen, not weaken, the special bonds between generations.
Family Support New Hampshire acts to bring together the diverse leadership from existing and newly forming family resource centers and family support programs within New Hampshire under the common vision of establishing a statewide network of family support practice within New Hampshire.
NHCT strives to ensure parents have access to high-quality resources and support to help children develop through education of direct-service professionals, advocacy for better policies to support parents, and connection with local agencies to strengthen families and lay the foundation for children's success.