At the Kanawha County circuit court, the Roberts family is celebrating. Today, Andy and Debbie have adopted their grandchildren, Preston, age 6, and Tesla,19 months.
Grandfamilies, or grandparents raising grandchildren, are one of the fastest-growing family units in West Virginia. The rise is mostly due to the opioid crisis. These families are faced with tough choices – such as whether to adopt the children, or to simply go through the steps to become legal guardians. Adoption brings permanence and stability, but it can also mean the loss of much-needed funds, provided to foster parents by the government.
The Roberts are one of the few grandfamilies that chose to pursue adoption.
“They got on drugs the way everyone else does,” said grandpa Andy Roberts. “They go to the doctor and they give them some medications and then give them more medications and then more medications and then when pills became too expensive on the street to buy, they went to alternative drug sources. And when things got bad we ended up with the kids.”
Tesla, the youngest, has been with the Roberts since she was released from the hospital at six weeks. She was born with drugs in her system and had to go through detox.
“I think we didn’t want to realize and believe that our children would be on drugs because we come from a pretty well-rounded household,” said Roberts. “We’ve always been good community-minded people. I’ve worked my whole life and my wife’s worked and, like I said, we go to church every day. We’ve been in the same church for 30 years. Our neighbors have been the same for 30 years, and our kids are grown up and gone through school and never had any serious issues. And then when all of a sudden you have a drug problem, it kind of shocks you. You’re in an unbelief system – this shouldn’t happen to us. It’s traumatic when you finally realize what’s going on.”
Roberts said he and his wife pursued adoption because Preston, the 6-year-old, needed stability about his future.
“For the permanency of having them live someplace and not knowing where they belong,” he explained. “Preston has concerns about what happens to him now...and the fact that he needed that permanency in his life – I think that’s more important than any of it.”
Stability is one reason often cited for going through with the adoption process, but it can be an emotional juggernaut. Some grandparents worry they won’t be around long enough to make legal adoption a responsible choice; others remain hopeful that their kids will get involved. Some worry that their kids will get involved. Adoption ensures that biological parents can’t contest guardianship of the children at a later date. It’s also an agreement, with the state acknowledging, that the adoptive parents have the resources to care for the children for the scope of their childhood.
Although 69, Andy Roberts still works. Additionally, the Roberts family qualified for a “subsidized adoption” through the state – an option only available for specific cases, usually involving kids who were taken away from their parents by the state, or children with ongoing health issues. But for many other families, adoption could mean losing financial help from the government.
In Ravenswood, Israel, age 10, and Jason, age 8, are playing in their grandmother’s living room. Their younger brother is still at school participating in an after-school program.
Their grandmother, Katherine Stanley, is on disability due to a broken back she sustained while working as a geriatric nurse 10 years ago. As their legal guardian, she receives a monthly maintenance subsidy of around $350 for the kids as well as medical cards. Altogether, she says she gets about $1,200 a month, which she has to stretch to cover four people.
“I pinch pennies – I mean, for my grandchildren, I’ll do anything,” said Stanley.
Stanley might qualify for a subsidized adoption – her grandchildren have health issues too – but she went out of state to get all three kids and there’s some uncertainty about how that would play out.
“I was told that if a grandparent is going to adopt a grandchild, certain resources stop that the children need,” she said.
Regardless, Stanley doesn’t expect the children’s mother to come back into the picture and said she’s committed to caring for them until they graduate.
“You know if stuff’s out there, let the grandparents know. Don’t take the grandparents for granted just because they have custody of their grandchildren,” said Stanley. “They are giving up their golden years and their retirement. I mean, I wouldn’t trade it for the world, but don’t take us for granted. I mean, we need help.”
Stanley currently participates in the West Virginia State University Healthy Grandfamilies program – a pilot program designed to help connect families to resources they need.
Early data from that program shows about 7 percent of participants pursue adoption.
In addition to all the financial considerations and questions about stability, whether to pursue adoption can be a wrenching emotional decision.
Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from Charleston Area Medical Center and WVU Medicine.