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Grandparents Step In When Parents Get Hooked On Opiates


We start this hour with two views of heroin and other opiate addiction in this country, a problem communities are struggling with more and more. In a moment, we'll hear from a firefighter who answers emergency calls about overdoses every day.


First, the role of family when the step is taken to involuntarily commit a loved one for substance abuse. It takes a phone call and a lot of courage. And Jill Kaufman from New England Public Radio has this story of how grandparents are stepping in to take control.

JILL KAUFMAN, BYLINE: Michelle Howe made the call about her daughter.

MICHELLE HOWE: They went and picked her up and brought her in, and then you go before the judge. And a doctor comes and talks with her and talks with me, and then they call to see if there's a bed available.

KAUFMAN: She and her husband then took custody of their two young grandchildren. Today, Howe is back in court hoping the judge will see her daughter has recovered enough to take her children back home. It's not new that families step in to help when a crisis hits. Twenty, 30 years ago, it was alcohol, at some point, crack-cocaine. Now it's prescription meds and heroin. No one knows, in Massachusetts or elsewhere, exactly how many kids are living with their grandparents because of a parent's drug use. One expert put it this way. At this point of this crisis, the data are garbage.

An hour west of Boston, about a dozen grandpas and grandmas and their children come to this support group twice a month. A potluck dinner is wrapping up. The kids are heading off with a babysitter. The grandparents get down to talking.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I tell them, you know, you can always give out my name and phone number and all.



UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I think we all do the same.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I think we all do.

KAUFMAN: These men and women in their 50s, 60s and 70s are among the thousands of Massachusetts grandparents raising their grandchildren. And every grandparent here tonight will tell you it's because their grown child is addicted to opiates, and their grandchildren were absolutely in harm's way.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It just hit the fan, and it's like, what the heck's going on? Well, because she's my daughter, we enable...

KAUFMAN: Some here are retired. Others are working full-time. Some have taken on second mortgages or second jobs. They are closer to the end of their careers than the beginning and yet facing the typical costs associated with raising a family. Their neighbors and friends think they're heroes.

LISA O'CONNELL: So you can't tell them this is a really what I want to do.

KAUFMAN: Lisa O'Connell and her husband, Ken, are in their 50s, and they've adopted their granddaughter. Lisa's a nurse. Ken is in the Air Force Reserves at a nearby base. Their daughter started using heroin in high school. She got pregnant and lived with the baby in an apartment that Lisa O'Connell describes as uninhabitable. The state stepped in. Instead of letting the baby go to a foster home, the O'Connell's grabbed at the option to take custody away from their daughter.

O'CONNELL: She gave me the baby, and I went to court and got guardianship.

KAUFMAN: Guardianship didn't guarantee their granddaughter could stay with them, so the O'Connell's convinced their daughter to give her up for adoption. In the adult children's eyes, the grandparents are sometimes the bad guys. Seventy-one-year-old Margo Chevers is raising her two great-granddaughters.

MARGO CHEVERS: It's the hardest decision that you can make because you love the parent, and you love the grandchildren. And you're right there in the middle.

KAUFMAN: In the middle, as lunch makers, permission-slip signers, shoelace tires, banded suppliers. Grandparents are flying, sometimes blind, through the court system to do a job they didn't want to take but couldn't refuse.


ASHLEY ERHOE: Come on, Baby.

KAUFMAN: At the courthouse in Greenfield, Mass., after waiting about 20 minutes for their turn, Ashley Erhoe, her young children and their grandmother Michelle Howe enter the court room. Howe's the one who had her daughter committed two years ago. After everyone settles in, probate officer Linda Singer goes before Judge Beth Crawford.

LINDA SINGER: So this is a big day for this family, and it appears as though Ashley is in full compliance the the program. She's had negative drug screening results. She completed parent ed. classes. She's now working at Burger King.


KAUFMAN: The kids are wiggling. Everyone is smiling. The judge nods.

SINGER: So I am very happy to enter a decree of resignation which provides the custody will resume to you, OK?

ERHOE: Thank you.

SINGER: Thank you.

KAUFMAN: Before they leave the courtroom, the judge invites the kids up to the bench.

BETH CRAWFORD: You to come up here with your grandma or with your mom?


CRAWFORD: Your mom - OK. That's great. Come on up.

KAUFMAN: The story for Lisa and Ken O'Connell, who we met at the potluck, takes a different turn. They learned not long ago that their daughter has two more kids, and she hadn't told them. The toddlers were in a foster home in Ohio. The O'Connell's say they had no choice. Those kids are now living with them too in central Massachusetts. Their daughter hasn't spoken with them since. For NPR News, I'm Jill Kaufman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jill has been reporting, producing features and commentaries, and hosting shows at NEPR since 2005. Before that she spent almost 10 years at WBUR in Boston, five of them producing PRI’s “The Connection” with Christopher Lydon. In the months leading up to the 2000 primary in New Hampshire, Jill hosted NHPR’s daily talk show, and subsequently hosted NPR’s All Things Considered during the South Carolina Primary weekend. Right before coming to NEPR, Jill was an editor at PRI's The World, working with station based reporters on the international stories in their own domestic backyards. Getting people to tell her their stories, she says, never gets old.