Support group aims to help Centre County ‘grandfamilies’ affected by the opioid epidemic

Amy Mitchell hugs her grandson in August 2018 as he giggles after running to her arms. Mitchell recently started a Centre County support group for “grandfamilies.”
Amy Mitchell hugs her grandson in August 2018 as he giggles after running to her arms. Mitchell recently started a Centre County support group for “grandfamilies.” Centre Daily Times, file

Amy Mitchell lost her 29-year-old daughter to an opioid addiction in March. But she felt she lost her long before that, when she dropped her daughter off at the York County prison and took her new grandson home from the hospital.

Since that day, Mitchell, of Howard, has been the sole caretaker of her grandson, who turned 4 last month. She gained legal custody of him in July.

And being his guardian spurred her to start a new group in Centre County that would help people in her situation — grandparents raising the children of their drug addicted offspring — called “grandfamilies.”

“I think it is an effect from the heroin drug epidemic that has been lost, and what I mean by that, is people are looking to help the heroin addicts ... and forgetting about the extended family and the fallout that this extended drug use creates,” Mitchell said. “Because that’s what happened with me and my grandson.”

In Pennsylvania, 238,598 or 8.8 percent of children under 18 live in homes where householders are grandparents or other relatives. More than 88,700 grandparents are householders responsible for their grandchildren who live with them, and 20 percent of those grandparents live in poverty, according to Grandfamilies.org.

Mitchell said Grandfamilies Support Group started because she was looking for a way to gather and share information among families coping with the stress of having to raise another child or children — much of the time without any financial assistance or advice.

“It’s not easy to find resources, counseling, financial assistance, and my thought was to make more people aware that it affects the extended family, but perhaps those of who can meet together can share information, so that we’re not all making the same five phone calls to get the same information,” Mitchell said.

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Amy Mitchell reaches her arms out to catch her grandson as he comes down the slide at Spring Creek Park in August 2018. Mitchell has guardianship of her 3-year-old grandson. Abby Drey Centre Daily Times, file

Grandfamilies Support Group, which began in September, meets on the second and fourth Tuesday of every month at 7 p.m. at the St. John’s Church of Christ in Bellefonte. So far, Mitchell said, about six or seven people on average attend the meetings. She has invited representatives from counseling offices, the Office of Aging and the county Youth Service Bureau to speak on different topics or offer resources.

“Personally, I think it has been good to get with people who are going through the same things ... that we each are,” she said. “Sometimes just talking about it, being able to cry about something, and not feel like you’re being judged, I think, is very helpful.”

Mitchell said she would love to see a program from the state to help guide grandfamilies through the legal process of gaining custody of their grandchildren. She also wants to see a program that offers counseling for the children, the parents and grandparents as they navigate the process of trying to place a child or children in a safe home after a parent dies or goes to jail.

New state legislation was passed in October specifically to help grandfamilies take care of children left parent-less — both temporarily and permanently — by drug addiction. This included Act 88, which grants temporary guardianship in 90-day increments for up to one year to grandparents or other relatives when a child’s or children’s parents cannot take care of them, and Act 89, which established the Kinship Caregiver Navigator Program to offer resources and information to grandparents and families.

Mitchell struggled when her grandson was first born, she said, because her daughter — though incarcerated and unable to care for her son — still had parental rights.

“I’ve had to go through custody, and you can’t get child care, health care, without having some kind of doctor saying you’re responsible,” she said.

Money, too, is an obstacle for grandfamilies. Just paying the gas bill and the groceries can be a struggle when grandparents are trying to budget $5-7,000 a month for unpredicted child care expenses, Mitchell said.

Grandfamilies also don’t get financial assistance in the form of child support like divorced or separated families with children and a stipend like foster families, said Mitchell.

“In order for a grandparent to avail themselves of their legal rights as a grandparent, they have to have legal counsel and oftentimes they don’t have the income to support themselves in those initiatives,” said Ken Pendleton, director of the Centre County Office of Aging. “It’s a struggle.”

Pendleton said it can be hard for some people to imagine being 85 years old and having to raise a 4 or 5 year old without any help or extra funding. But, he said, that is increasingly becoming the reality in Centre County and the rest of the state.

“There’s a need for increased funding, yes. I think increased awareness in the community that this happens,” he said. “That these are good people that are doing amazing things under the circumstances and that if you can help a friend or neighbor who is facing this kind of circumstance, every little bit of help would make a difference.”

Though it has been a struggle to raise her grandson, Mitchell said she has learned so much.

“As many challenges as it has created, I wouldn’t give him up for the world. I love him, tremendously, (but) it is different than when I raised my children. My daughter would’ve been 30 years old today. So things are definitely different than they were 30 years ago,” she said.

Overall, Mitchell said, her goal is to increase awareness of the issues facing grandfamilies. And she wants any grandparent or caregiver interested in attending a support group to reach out to her.

“I think having a place where people can go that we may not have all the answers ... we’re just community people,” she said. “But sharing that information makes the task of finding what we need a little bit easier.”

Grandfamilies Support Group

  • Meets the second a fourth Tuesday of every month at 7 p.m. at St. John’s Church of Christ in Bellefonte. The next meeting is Jan. 8.
  • For more information, contact Amy Mitchell at 880-7454 or amymitchell1031@gmail.com.
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Sarah Paez covers Centre County communities, government and town and gown relations for the Centre Daily Times. She studied English and Spanish at Cornell University and grew up outside of Washington, D.C.