Stepping up

Amid opioid crisis, grandparents tackle parenthood again

Brayden Logue, 15 months, plays with his grandmother, Jo Lynn Seagriff, 47, at their home in Sarver on Oct. 11. Jo Lynn is Brayden’s primary caretaker after Brayden’s father, Connor Seagriff died of an overdose. The Associated Press

WASHINGTON, Pa. — Jo Lynn Seagriff wanted to be a new grandma, not a new mom.

Her 14-year-old daughter, Caroline, and 17-year-old son, Dalton, would leave home in a few years. Her oldest, Collin, 22, lived in Florida with his fiancee.

But the day before Thanksgiving 2016, Collin died of an opioid overdose. The day after Thanksgiving, his fiancee announced she was pregnant.

“I never purposely wanted to take him,” Seagriff said of Brayden, her blond grandson. “I wanted to be a grandma. I wanted the fun part. It’s not that I’m not up to it. It’s just that no grandmother wants that.”

She said Brayden’s mother, who lives in Florida, continues to struggle with addiction.

“She took herself out of his life when she gave him over to me,” said Seagriff, of Sarver. “They basically dumped him off on the curb with a suitcase, some clothes and some formula.”

Not enough help

As the opioid epidemic continues to kill thousands, social safety nets and the foster system appear ill-equipped to handle the crisis surrounding the youngest victims of the epidemic: The children left behind when parents die.

Across the country, 2.6 million children are being raised by relatives, according to a study from Generations United, a nationwide nonprofit organization that focuses on bridging the gap between older and younger generations, and the most common reason is substance abuse. In cases where children are placed in foster care because of substance abuse, one-third are placed with relatives.

Seagriff didn’t yet have full legal custody of Brayden when she talked to the Tribune-Review in August. That meant she couldn’t enroll him in day care. Because she couldn’t enroll him in day care, she couldn’t work. Without legal custody of Brayden — a legal process that takes time and attorneys and hearings — the family didn’t qualify for benefits or medical assistance. Social services suggested she reach out to AARP for resources and direction. Seagriff is 49.

“Do I look like I belong to AARP? I have six more years before I go to AARP,” she said. “He’ll be seven. We could be living under the bridge by the time he’s seven if we don’t get some help.”

Legislation that took effect in July — the Supporting Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Act, sponsored in part by Sen. Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat — created a “one-stop-shop” of resources that can help grandparents who find themselves in the midst of a second go-round in raising children. The legislation created a clearinghouse of information. But it did not directly include funding for grandparents.

That’s not enough, Seagriff said. More help — more funds, more guidance, more anything — is needed, she said.

“Why don’t you come to my house for a month — come live my life,” she said. “How about you feed your kids first and then you don’t eat for 10 days. Because I did that. I made sure they had, because they are more important than anything else on the planet.”

The opioid epidemic is directly related to the steady increase in the number of children in the foster care system or engaged with the Office of Children, Youth and Families, said Marc Cherna, the director of the Allegheny County Department of Human Services.

In Allegheny County, the number of children CYF placed increased to 1,486 in mid-2018 from a low of 1,260 two years ago, Cherna said. Home removals because of opioid abuse rose to 371 in 2017, up from 206 in 2014. Opioid abuse accounted for 29 percent of home removals in Allegheny County in 2017, up from 19 percent in 2016

Other statistics related to CYF services have increased as well, Cherna said.

Child abuse and neglect allegations in Allegheny County rose to 15,613 last year from 13,178 in 2015. Substance-use allegations rose to 2,967 from 1,913 during the same period.

More than half of the children referred to his office are placed with relatives, Cherna said. Allegheny County is unique in that CYF will often provide assistance to the relative in the form of Medicaid, a clothing allowance, a stipend or other assistance.

Of the total referrals, 65 percent end up with a relative who will receive assistance through the program. But if relatives don’t let CYF or another agency know they’ve started caring for a child, the programs can’t help.

“I know that if my kids couldn’t care for their child, I would take them before Children and Youth did,” Cherna said. “(CYF) would never know about it. A lot of grandparents are doing that, and it’s a huge burden for some. We don’t tend to get involved because it doesn’t come to our attention.”

Grandparents stepping up — taking on parenting their young grandchildren when they never expected to be raising small children again — has kept Westmoreland County’s foster care numbers from skyrocketing, according to Adam Garrity, a program specialist with the Westmoreland County Children’s Bureau.

While the number of drug and alcohol-related referrals in the county has increased each of the past three years, the percentage in which opioids are cited as the abused drug has decreased, Garrity said.

There were 757 such referrals in 2017, up from 634 in 2016 and 537 in 2015, he said. The number of referrals in which opioids were named as the main drug fell to 27.5 percent in 2017 from more than 35 percent in 2015.

The national average, he said, is about 38 percent.

More than 40 percent of children end up with kinship caregivers — relatives, often grandparents, Garrity said.

“An absolute goal of ours is to ensure children are placed with family or loved ones,” he said. “If a child enters custody, that is our first and foremost goal.”

2 a.m. on a school night

For Carol Ann Lubovinsky, the struggles go beyond just caring for her grandchildren, Eban and Bobby. Their mother, 26-year-old Amanda, died of an overdose in her Washington apartment in March. She’s really just a memory to her 7- and 10-year-old sons.

“She’s just a person they talked to on the phone. But they don’t like to talk about her — her being in the ground, being dead. They won’t go to the cemetery,” Lubovinsky said from her Mount Pleasant home in Westmoreland County.

She has had custody of the boys since early 2016, but Amanda and the children were living with her before that, though Amanda came and went and often disappeared from their lives for stretches of time.

Amanda moved home while she tried to get clean, and she consistently snuck out of the house.

“She came home one night, and she fell asleep three times during one diaper change with Eban,” Lubovinsky said.

She made the decision to file for custody the next day.

“I didn’t have one problem,” she said. “It was Friday, and it was granted to me Monday.”

She and Amanda carpooled to the emergency custody hearing.

“I thought it would wake her up, because what mother wants to lose custody of their kids?” Lubovinsky said. “I stepped in before CYF did. I thought in doing that, Amanda would straighten up.”

She didn’t. Lubovinsky said her daughter got clean in January 2017 but then relapsed.

Lubovinsky would drive the children to Amanda’s apartment each weekend. One weekend in April 2017, Amanda dropped off the boys after a weekend with them at 2 a.m. on a Monday — a school night.

“That was the last time she got to see the boys,” Lubovinsky said.

Raising young boys “wasn’t what we were expecting,” she said.

‘A bright light’

At the end of January, Brayden went back to his mother for 10 days. Then he came to live with his grandmother permanently.

On Feb. 6, Seagriff picked up the boy at the airport in Florida, and her quest for custody started.

She said she would do it over again if she had to, and she doesn’t want anyone to think that the opportunity to raise Brayden is anything less than a blessing.

“I love my grandson. He is a bright light in a very dark situation that just happened,” she said. “He saved my life. I was in a really dark spot. If it wasn’t for him, I don’t know if I would have come out of it.”

But, she said, that doesn’t mean it isn’t challenging.

“I do the best I can not to cry on a daily basis, because you can’t. I’m not the strongest person on the planet. There’s days when I haul off and yell at her,” Seagriff said, gesturing toward her daughter, Caroline. “Later, I have to come back and apologize. That’s hard for a parent to apologize.

“As a grandparent, I’ll probably have to apologize to him — a lot,” she said, this time gesturing toward the room where Brayden sleeps. “We have no support as grandparents.”