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When the opioid epidemic hit home, this grandma fought back. Now she wants to help others

Amy Mitchell reaches her arms out to catch her grandson as he comes down the slide at Spring Creek Park in August 2018.
Amy Mitchell reaches her arms out to catch her grandson as he comes down the slide at Spring Creek Park in August 2018. Centre Daily Times, file

Soon after being there for the birth of her grandson, Amy Mitchell dropped her daughter off at the county prison and brought her grandson home to Howard.

Mitchell said her daughter suffered with opioid substance use disorder for years. She’d been to at least four rehabs. When she was sent to recovery houses, she learned how to break the rules and still get drugs.

When she got in trouble with the law and broke probation, Mitchell’s daughter was incarcerated. She was furloughed long enough to have her child.

“It’s very hard, bringing your grandson home and dropping his mother off at prison,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell is among thousands of grandparents who are raising their grandchildren as their own, a situation known as “grandfamilies.” More than 100,000 children are being raised by grandparents or other relatives in Pennsylvania. According to Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., the number is increasing due to the opioid epidemic.

Opioid substance use has increasingly become a major problem in the commonwealth.

At least 10 Pennsylvanians died every day from drug overdoses, according to the Pennsylvania’s official website.

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According to data collected by OverdosefreePA, 43 total deaths in Centre County were reportedly caused by overdoses in the past two years. With 11 confirmed opioid overdose deaths as of June, Centre County District Attorney Bernie Cantorna told the CDT that 2018 is on track to “far exceed” last year’s 14 overdose deaths.

Pennsylvania’s Opioid Data Dashboard indicated 644 Centre County residents who receive Medicaid have an “opioid use disorder,” or OUD, according to another report by the CDT. Another 372 residents covered by Medicaid expansion have an OUD, and there are 394 people receiving medication-assisted treatment.

Julia Sprinkle, the director of Child Youth Services, said a vast majority of children under the service’s care in Centre County have been affected by drug or alcohol use.

“It was pretty close to 75 percent of the children we have in our care and custody, one of the barriers for them to go home was drugs and alcohol,” Sprinkle said. “That’s fairly high.”

When drugs take over

Mitchell’s daughter was 29 years old when she died in the hospital in March. Mitchell said she wasn’t at the hospital when her daughter passed.

Her relationship with her daughter fluctuated as she was battling with her substance use disorder. Drugs took over her daughter’s life, making her a person Mitchell didn’t know anymore.

“When the person is actively using, there’s often stealing, verbal abuse, physical abuse, police involved, incarceration,” Mitchell said.

On one occasion, Mitchell reported her daughter to the police after she found out she’d been stealing her jewelry to pay for drugs. As a result, Mitchell said her daughter “physically grabbed her” and “twisted her glasses up.”

“My son was there, so he helped me, held her down and I called the police,” Mitchell said. “She stole from me, it doesn’t matter. The drugs just would take everything — it doesn’t matter.”

Mitchell realized her daughter was still using, even after she had gone to rehab. All Mitchell could do was detach.

“There’s a period of time where you kind of have to detach from that person and that situation,” Mitchell said. “You then begin to feel guilty.”

After her daughter passed away, Mitchell started wondering if she had visited her daughter at the hospital more, “maybe it would be different, maybe she would be here today.”

In her house, a picture of her daughter holding Mitchell’s now 3-year-old grandson hangs on the wall. Mitchell said a few months ago her grandson looked at the photo and wondered who the woman was.

“I think it was because she was healthy — she didn’t look like she did when she passed,” Mitchell said. “I think more of his memories of her are when she was sick — almost anorexic-looking.”

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Amy Mitchell hugs her 3-year-old grandson as he giggles after running to her arms. Mitchell has guardianship of her grandson who had been running around the park and wading into the creek. Abby Drey Centre Daily Times, file

Sometimes, Mitchell said her grandson brings up his mother.

Mitchell recalls when her grandson moved into the bedroom where his mom used to stay when she would visit, he said, “This is Mommy’s bed.”

“And I said, ‘It was, but now it’s your bedroom.’ ” Her grandson said, “Well, where’s mommy going to sleep when she comes?” and Mitchell replied, “We’ll figure that out.”

Since there is no name for the father on the birth certificate, Mitchell’s grandson became an orphan after his mother died. In July, Mitchell went to court and was granted guardianship.

Recovery after the ‘lightning strike’

Matt Kaplan, professor of intergenerational programs and aging at Penn State, said caretakers often describe the process of obtaining custody as a “lightning strike,” as it often happens suddenly without notice.

“Nobody really thinks it could happen to them,” Kaplan said.

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As a senior over 60 years old, Mitchell said parenting a toddler brings a whole new set of challenges.

Monitoring technology and what the child can see on the internet is something she didn’t have to deal with as a parent the first time around.

“We didn’t have YouTube and all those things back then,” she said. “Now you have to be aware and proactive in making sure that they’re not getting into things that they shouldn’t be.”

The education system, learning how to discipline, working through custody, health care, dental care and financial issues are some of the obstacles Mitchell has had to face and overcome.

Despite retiring last June, bills have been piling up for Mitchell as she takes care of her young grandson.

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Amy Mitchell holds onto her grandson as they wade into the creek at Spring Creek Park. Abby Drey

“I had child care costs that I hadn’t planned on,” Mitchell said. “Like clothing — kids grow fast. The pants I got my grandson in the spring, I now call them high water pants.”

According to Pa. Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski (D-Luzerne), relatives who take in their children “saves the state over an estimated $1 billion per year,” through potential costs of finding foster families for the children.

At Child Youth Services, Sprinkle said they primarily recommend relatives who are able to provide a stable and healthy living environment should take in the child.

“Foster care, while necessary, can be traumatic for children,” Sprinkle said.

Although Mitchell said she has “overall been treated fairly” by her grandson’s teachers who know the situation, she still worries about what people are actually thinking and if people focus on how her grandson is going to turn out since his mother was involved with drugs.

“I have to admit, I wondered that. ‘What did I do wrong, if anything? How do I teach him that’s not the way?’ ” Mitchell said.

Help for grandfamilies

In July, the Supporting Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Act became law, creating a one-stop shop of resources to support grandparents raising grandchildren.

“These grandparents, some of which have stepped in to raise their grandchildren due to the opioid crisis, are faced with unique challenges such as delaying retirement, bridging their generational divide and working through the court system to secure custody,” Casey said in a press release. “I look forward to the Administration swiftly convening the advisory council created under this legislation so grandparents can access the supports they need.”

In Centre County, Penn State Extension set up a Relatives as Parents Program as an aid for families. Kaplan was at the forefront for helping RAPP and became involved with grandfamilies as he noticed there was a need for support.

“They can’t really access some of the financial aid programs unless, this law kind of varies, if they have guardianship,” Kaplan said. “So it’s very complex.”

RAPP has a Kinship Navigator Website, where they input a running list of resources in every county in Pennsylvania that can help relatives who are taking care of other children. Kaplan said grandparents can be isolated in many cases, so support groups can be helpful.

RAPP also has weekend retreats for families as a way to bond, obtain support, and treat the families like normal families through recreational activities and workshops.

According to Kaplan, the camp can help give the family a chance to form an identity — through fun and engaging activities such as drawing a family shield.

Another benefit of the retreat is being able to connect with other families who may be going through similar experiences, according to Kaplan. “I think people tend to suffer in silence,” he said. “Kids don’t talk about (their circumstances) that much because they’re embarrassed.”

Building the support

One problem facing Centre County: there is no central group to specifically help support grandfamilies or other relatives parenting children, according to Kaplan.

In the future, Mitchell wants to create a support group for relatives who are taking care of children.

Important aspects of the group will include providing support and sharing information, like advice on obtaining guardianship that Mitchell wished she’d had when she was going through the experience.

The group will also provide child care, which was one of the hurdles Mitchell had to deal with when she initially took care of her grandson.

Mitchell also wants to host speakers to discuss a variety of topics — including grief counseling.

“My daughter died, but my grief from my daughter started long before that,” Mitchell said. “My daughter wasn’t a person I knew. And I don’t know if people can understand that that aren’t going through that. So I think grief counseling is important.”

Mitchell said her support group would also encourage self care for the guardians — something she personally struggles with.

“If we don’t take care of ourselves, what will happen to the ones we’re giving care to if we can’t do it?” Mitchell said. “Women tend to put themselves last anyway, especially when I think children are involved. And now we are older, we’re not 25 anymore, so self care is extremely important. Whether that’s laying by the pool or going to a spa or going out with friends.”

While she is still grieving her daughter’s death, Mitchell said she wants to shift her focus to creating a positive cause.

“If it makes a difference, even for one person, one family, that’s a blessing,” Mitchell said.

Despite her complex relationship with her daughter, Mitchell said she still remembers her as “happy-go-lucky.”

“I remember one picture we have, she was just a little thing then. She was holding a sunflower that was half the size of her and she was grinning from ear to ear,” Mitchell said. “She was always a thoughtful and caring person, until drugs got a hold of her and kind of changed that.”

What helped Mitchell through her tough times was having supportive friends, relatives and especially her grandson.

“My grandson is such a happy little guy,” Mitchell said. “He knows I’m Grandma, but he is my boy.”

Resources for Grandfamilies

  • To help Amy Mitchell get her support group running, contact her at: 880-7454

  • RAPP — Matt Kaplan: 863-7871

  • Kinship Care Navigator:

  • Mental Health/Intellectual Disabilities/Early Intervention and Drug and Alcohol: 355-6744

  • Family Support of Central Pennsylvania: 717-541-0828 or 1-800-984-9923 (toll-free)