Cindi and Todd Colburn have had guardianship of their granddaughter, Maleigha, since Maleigha was a year old because their daughter could not stay away from heroin.
Maleigha is now 5.
In February, on the advice of a counselor, the Colburns cautiously allowed their daughter, who is 25, to take Maleigha back on a trial basis, with the hope that the two could live together permanently.
Within 24 hours, the Colburns’ daughter and a friend she was with had both overdosed on heroin and the friend was dead. Maleigha, alone, using all her strength, rolled her mother over, jolting her awake enough so she could call 911. Emergency responders revived her and, soon, she was back in rehab. She is now in a program at a sober living house for women. If she wants to see Maleigha, she has to get permission from a judge.
Grandparents have long provided safe harbor for grandchildren for a host of reasons — dire financial straits, teen pregnancy, military deployment. But not since the crack epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s, analysts say, have so many children been at risk because of parental drug addiction.
With the rise in heroin use, grandparents are increasingly raising their grandchildren because the parents are either dead, in jail, in rehab or otherwise incapable of taking care of their children.
Nationwide, 2.6 million grandparents were responsible for their grandchildren in 2014, the census shows, up 8 percent from 2000. Websites and Facebook pages like The Addict’s Mom, Grandparents Raising Grandchildren, The Parents of Drug Addicts and Before The Petals Fall are proliferating, drawing tens of thousands of people.
Unlike the crack epidemic, which hit black residents in urban areas particularly hard, this most recent wave of heroin addiction has taken hold largely among whites in the suburbs and rural areas; the death rate from drug overdoses across the country has soared among whites while it has leveled off among blacks and Hispanics.
“Even in more racially diverse areas, like Long Island and New Jersey, this epidemic is very white,” said Andrew Kolodny, a senior scientist at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University and chief medical officer for Phoenix House Foundation, a nonprofit that treats substance abuse in 11 states.
For the grandparents, taking in their grandchildren almost always follows a harrowing roller coaster ride with their own children that leaves them exhausted, distrustful and angry — and determined to protect their grandchildren and keep them out of foster care.
Cindi Colburn, 51, an office manager, said raising Maleigha had reordered her life. She and Todd Colburn, also 51, a plant manager, who live in Milford, New Hampshire, were saving for their retirement and looking forward to spending more time hiking the White Mountains and camping. Now, their days revolve around Maleigha’s activities, “kid food” meals (Maleigha loves orange cheese balls) and socializing with parents who are half their age.
Yet, despite the challenges, the Colburns said, caring for Maleigha has enriched their lives. They allowed a photographer to record their day, saying they wanted other grandparents to understand that they were not alone and that taking in a grandchild may be disruptive, but it is doable.
Interviews with grandmothers around the country, through conversations and emails, collectively shed light on the ripple effects that heroin is having on families.
Grandparents often step in to raise their grandchildren after the relationships with their own children have disintegrated.
Cindi Colburn: “I am in recovery myself, so I believe that where there’s breath, there’s hope. But I also know I am not going to get my daughter clean, that she’s got to do it on her own. And she’s a chronic relapser. It’s more chaotic with her around. For me, it’s like having two children. The stress level is insane … It’s hard when you realize that it’s your own child who has caused this mess.”
Wanda Custred, 52, Mansfield, Texas:After a custody hearing, “my daughter said, ‘Why are you airing our dirty laundry in court?’ I said, ‘I have to protect your son from you. You don’t have his best interest at heart. I can’t worry any more about you.’”
Susan Paris, 47, Manchester, New Hampshire: A hospice nurse, she was told by her son’s girlfriend that her son had overdosed yet again. “I told her, ‘The next time that happens, hold his hand and let him go in peace. I’m telling you this to help him out of his pain.’ She cried and said, ‘I don’t want to tell her that her father is dead.’ And I said, ‘I don’t want to tell her that her father is choosing heroin over her.’”
Pamela Toms, 53, Daytona Beach, Florida: “My daughter came back home because we thought we could help her. Wrong! No one can help her but herself. She stole my granddaughter’s iPod, my grandson’s tablet, an antique gun, power tools, jewelry, cash. We filed charges against her, but she can’t be located. She’s on the run again. … We will never let her in our home again. Heroin has taken our daughter to bad, bad places. I don’t even know who she is anymore.”
Grandparents see firsthand the physical and emotional toll that a mother’s addiction can have on a baby.
Paris: “She was born with neonatal abstinence syndrome and spent the first month of her life in the NICU being weaned from illegal drugs with morphine. She was frail-looking and filled with anxiety. Her parents were not there much to hold and comfort her during this horrible time. Her head was misshapen from laying in one position too long.”
Toms: “The baby … was malnourished. He had blistery diaper rash that made me cry. There were dirty, rotten diapers, clothes, drugs, moldy bottles and trash filled 2 feet high in the car when we found them. … We had to have physical therapists come to the house so the baby could learn to move his body. He cried all day and all night.”
Bonnie Martin, 56, Vineland, New Jersey:Her grandson’s teacher “said he was the saddest boy she’s ever taught. At that, I said, ‘I’m not enough for him anymore — I have to take him to therapy.’ I found a wonderful therapist; things have turned around.”
Cindi Colburn: “She has a loyalty to her mother. When we’re on the couch to watch her last TV show of the night, she snuggles with my husband but not with me. … I think she feels that if she snuggled with me, she’s betraying her mother. At the same time, she feels abandoned.”
In late middle age, taking in a grandchild can crimp retirement plans and add new layers of financial stress and logistical responsibilities.
Toms: “What were the plans for our 50s? Travel and do things. But now, we don’t go anywhere. We don’t do anything. We still take the kids fishing, but we lost all our hobbies — I lost my job, and I haven’t found anything. … I don’t want to waitress in my 50s at $10 an hour. Day care costs more than that.”
Judi LeCompte, 57, Bensalem, Pennsylvania:”We were still able to go out Friday and have a couple drinks at our shot-and-beer bar. We went on Trivia Night. We’re both golfers, we had freedom. We were on the verge of the next chapter of life. … But it just went to hell in a hand basket.”
Jane Joukovsky, 74, La Quinta, California:”At the time of the custody hearing, both my daughter and the children’s father were in jail on drug-related charges. I remember the judge asking me how long I thought it would be before the children’s parents would be capable of taking care of their children. I optimistically said, ‘Oh, about six months, your honor.’ Well, here we are more than 20 years later. … It can be a third of your life caring for grandkids when addiction is in the picture.”
Angela Cimino, 43, Nashua, New Hampshire:”My friends have kids who are grown. They say, ‘Come with us. We’re going to Vegas. We’re going down the Cape. Can you get away for the weekend?’ No. I can’t just up and go.”
LeCompte: “We were on our one weekend off a year at Gettysburg, and I said to my husband, ‘Doesn’t this ever piss you off?’ He never gets mad. It pisses me off, for our granddaughter, for us, for my daughter. We’re all being cheated. And my husband started crying. He said, ‘These kids have been given the short end of the stick. They were born through no fault of their own into a [expletive] situation. And as long as I’m alive, I’ll make it my business to take care of these kids and make sure they’re happy.’”
Addiction can upend traditional family roles and reshuffle the natural order.
Cindi Colburn: “I get very resentful toward my daughter because I don’t have a normal relationship with my granddaughter. I’m the disciplinarian, the nurse, the daytime playmate. I’m all of these things, when sometimes you just want to be a regular grandmother and have them come and visit and then go home.”
Cimino: “The worst part is, I always feel like I’m the bad guy. They want to go home to their parents, and I’m not letting them. I have to say, ‘They aren’t with you for a reason.’ It does suck some days.”
Joukovsky: “I have two other grandchildren, my regular grandchildren, and it’s difficult because I obviously treat the two I have raised like kids as more than grandkids, and I see the green eye on the part of the other two.”
Custred: “Raising him isn’t the hard part. Yes, it stinks. I’m going through menopause. But the hardest part is knowing what my daughter is missing. She has no clue and doesn’t care. That, and that I’ll bury her before they bury me.”
Fears for the Future
Many grandparents say their biggest worry is that their health will fail before their grandchildren become adults.
Toms: “I’m afraid what will happen to our grandchildren if we die before they turn 18. This is our greatest fear. … We don’t have anyone to take the kids. I’m thinking about interviewing people to adopt them.”
LeCompte: “If something happens to us, one of my stepdaughters will take her. That’s the plan, that’s in the will, but that remains to be seen. What if my daughter walks into court and says, ‘I’m her biological mother’? It would be a battle. My hope is that we live long enough to make sure she’s at least 18.”
Despite the difficulties, challenges and heartbreak, most grandparents say taking in their grandchildren has been worth it.
Custred: “Just watching him is the reward. He’ll want to sleep with me. We’ll watch a movie till we fall asleep. He holds the door for me. He helps me carry stuff.”
Martin: “I feel blessed to have this boy in my life. He is a treasure, and most likely, I would not be here without him. He gave me something positive to focus on, rather than the heartaches and sadness and grief. I have a renewed sense of hope, that I’m doing something worthwhile.”
Paris: “The chair I rock my granddaughter in belonged to my boyfriend’s great-great grandmother. He takes her on bike rides. He never had kids, so he’s like, ‘Wow!’ The love you see in his eyes for her makes it all worthwhile. No matter what happens, I know she’s going to be OK.”
Cindi Colburn: “I don’t want Maleigha ever to feel like we thought she was a burden. Yes, it’s altered our lives, my God, but it’s not the end of the world. We’re trying to make do, given the lousy situation. As my niece said to me, ‘Maleigha is the luckiest unlucky girl I know.’ She has family. And thank God I’m not 80.”