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Grandparents bearing brunt of opioid epidemic in New Hampshire

  • Sen. Maggie Hassan speaks at a roundtable in Concord centered on the rise in grandparents raising kids during the opioid crisis, Sept 17, 2018. Ethan DeWitt—Ethan DeWitt

  • Rosemary Nugent (left), who has cared for her grandson since 2009 due to the opioid epidemic, sits at a roundtable in Concord to discuss the rising role of grandparents in the crisis. Ethan DeWitt / Monitor staff



Monitor staff
Monday, September 17, 2018

For Rosemary Nugent, the hardest part of raising her grandson was telling her own child he couldn’t do it himself.

The baby was born in March 2009. By September, Nugent had an inkling that her son and his partner were back to using opioids. That Labor Day, her son came close to overdosing; by New Years, the baby’s mother had been arrested. The woman was released in January and re-arrested in April.

By then, the baby, a boy, had changed hands between parents and grandparents multiple times.

“It was just back and forth,” Nugent recalled Monday. Then her son overdosed in November, and Nugent took custody for good.

That was nine years ago. The intervening years saw a line of weekly visitations from the mother of the child, until she stopped showing. The Nugents moved to New Hampshire and their son moved in with them, with Rosemary’s reluctant support. Then the Nugent’s son slipped back into alcohol abuse and grew belligerent and abusive. And one day in August 2014, Nugent’s son lost his temper one time too many.

He had been asked to leave a family gathering with children and grandchildren after growing belligerent. Instead, he picked up his firearm.

“He said ‘If anyone comes near me I’m gonna kill everyone’,” Nugent recalled, speaking to a crowd of reporters at a roundtable in Concord headed by Sen. Maggie Hassan.

The family called the police; Rosemary’s son was incarcerated. She hasn’t seen him since.

Four years after the opioid crisis took flight, grandparents and other relatives are still bearing a staggering share of parenting responsibilities – many still scarred by the unbearable events that brought them to this point. 

Thirty-three percent of children who have been removed from their homes were living with grandparents and other relatives in 2016 – up from 23 percent in 2012, according to a report from the University of New Hampshire Carsey School of Public Policy released in June.

Many of those grandparents are between 45 and 64 years old, the report noted.

The numbers represent only the children that have been processed through the state’s Division for Children, Youth and Families; the total number of grandparents involved is likely higher, the report noted. Meanwhile, the state has seen a significant increase in overall children placed in out-of-home care, from 667 in 2012 to 977 in 2016, the last year studied in the report.

For her part, Nugent considers herself more fortunate than most. After years of navigating in the dark, she and her husband only recently discovered they were eligible for state and federal benefits, including the supplemental nutrition assistance program and Medicaid funding.

“We were lucky DCYF was involved, so we got TANF, we got Medicaid, we didn’t have to fight the courts for anything,” she said. Others are far less lucky, she added.

But even as the parenting crisis deepens, stakeholders say attitudes toward grandparent caretakers are shifting, and awareness of their sacrifices is growing.

In May 2017, Gov. Chris Sununu signed into law House Bill 629, which made strides toward helping grandparents assume custody over the children when substance abuse is a factor. The bill changed the preponderance of evidence to favor grandparents when substance abuse is involved, and increased advertisement to those grandparents of the federal and state financial assistance available to the grandparents.

Other efforts are more locally rooted. In Antrim, the Grapevine Family and Community Resource Center has hosted a monthly grandparent support group to teach skills, and offer resources, and share stories – and tears.

Policymakers are looking for broad new changes to state law. Earlier this month, the newly created Commission to Study Grandfamilies in New Hampshire recommended legislation to allow grandparents access to the state’s child care assistance program – presently available to foster families.

It’s a potentially costly proposal. But Sen. Hassan, who chaired Monday’s roundtable, praised state-centered fixes and urged grandparents to press for improvements to both the services available and the judicial system that often regulates them.

And said she would explore ways to help from Washington.

“Certainly there are federal resources that often match or supplement what the state does,” she said. “And it’s often a partnership when we’re talking about providing health care or financial support for families in need.”

For Nugent, all the services available can’t dispel her greatest fear: an unknown future. Her grandson, now 9, has had a happy childhood, applying himself in school and at home.

But what comes next is as much on his mind as her son.

“He said to me one day,” she recalled. “He said ‘Mimi, I don’t want you to die. I want to stay in your world.’ ”