Lorri Irrgang


Grandparents often play two roles when their children have a substance use illness. One is the role of the “Giving Tree” and the other one I would like to share is a more positive role that they play. Grandparents are often the ones that step in and come to the rescue to save their grandchildren before they become “heroin orphans.”

In 2015, the U.S. Census showed 430,000 children were removed from parents with substance use problems. Statistics specific to your state can be found on the website:, a national legal resource. 146,589, or 10.9 percent of children under the age of 18 live with grandparents or other relatives. Another 41,000, or 3 percent, live with relatives with no parent present. Across our country, 2.7 million grandparents or other relatives are raising grandchildren. Is there a direct correlation between these statistics and the heroin crisis we are facing?

Jamie, a devoted grandmother, has raised two of her grandchildren ages 4 months old and 2 years old. She and her husband did not expect to go back to changing diapers and getting up in the middle of the night. They did not have car seats, strollers, clothes or children’s toys. They thought their parenting days were over.

She had finished one career while traveling and enjoying life. She started her own business and was working on getting that off the ground. And then, both her son and the children’s mother ended up in jail. Jamie had no other choice but to care for her grandchildren.

This scenario is increasing across our country as the heroin epidemic is on the rise. In some cases, the parents have overdosed. They spend time incarcerated. They are admitted into rehabilitation facilities, followed by sober living homes. Other times they are gone, and no one knows where they are. Even if they are within the home, they are emotionally unavailable. How can they do this to their own children?

The draw of the drug is so strong that they become debilitated. They love their children, and do not want to lose them, but are unable to care for them. Parents with a substance use illness are often sneaking to another room and using. When the children are young, they will use right in front of them. When they need more, they will take their children with them to “cop drugs.” Using the children as part of the family facade brings less suspicion. But children have an instinctual awareness that something is wrong.

Depending on the age, it is difficult for them to express what they are seeing or feeling. Children experience intense heartache and a deep sense of loss. Abandonment issues develop at an early age that carry on throughout the child’s life.

Grandparents step in and rescue the children when they see their emotional and physical safety is at risk. The thought of their little ones going into foster care, for many, is out of the question. They are the heroes that fill the gaps for their own adult children who are incapable of parenting.

Grandparents taking on this foster care role are overwhelmed. They are living on fixed incomes and do not have the means to support an extended family. About 21 percent of grandparents caring for their grandchildren live below the poverty line, according to Generations United, another nonprofit advocacy group.

They are not eligible for the same support services or financial subsidies as licensed foster parents. This situation leaves them with complicated challenges as they seek support.

In addition to the financial struggles, they are taking in grandchildren that were neglected of the bonding that is vital at an early age. This brings psychological battles. For many, significant trauma has already become a part of their grandchild’s journey. Counseling is needed.

Many questions are asked. “Where is Mommy? Why can’t Daddy play with me?” Jamie’s grandchildren were told repeatedly by their mother that she was sick and had to go to the doctor. She would not return for days or weeks later. When their grandfather had to go to the doctor one day, their youngest grandchild got extremely upset. As he was crying he said, “Please don’t let him go to the doctor! They will keep him and not let him come home!”

While caring for grandchildren, the issue of custody is bound to come up. Parents do not want to apply for custody because this means taking their own children to court. If they apply for welfare, there is a fear that the state will make their own children pay child support. When the grandchildren are sick and need to go to the doctor, they are not able to make major medical decisions. The roller-coaster of issues is non-stop.

Stigma and shame rear its ugly head through this process. This leads to secrecy for the grandparents. They hurt inside. Anger may creep in as they feel all their parenting skills wasted. They do not want to explain to friends why they are now raising their grandchildren. Lisa Frederickson, author of “Grandparents Raising Grandchildren of Addicted Parents,” refers to this as secondhand drinking and, or, drugging. Another person’s drinking or drugging has a negative impact on those around them.

Grandparents, put in this unfair situation, offer a future for their grandchildren with limited help. Jamie went to court on behalf of her grandchildren at one point. Her son was in the middle of his addiction and was threatening to take the children. The judge said, “They are his kids so he can take them.” Many people do not know where go to get legal, medical or financial help to protect the children involved.

The following resources will prove to be invaluable if you are raising your grandchildren. There is assistance available. You will need to check with your state though as #1 applies to Maryland.

1. Kinship Care ( Through your local Departments of Social Services, as the caregiver, you can apply on behalf of the child for: Temporary Cash Assistance, Child Support, Medicaid, Food Stamps, Child Care, Maryland Energy Assistance Program (MEAP) and Office of Home Energy Programs (OHEP)

2. ( explains laws available in each state as well as custody rules for grandparents.

3. The National Family Caregiver Support Program (https://www. allows states to funnel 10 percent of their grant money to caregivers of grandchildren.

4. Generations United; Grandfamilies ( This organization works to enact policies and promote programs to help grandfamilies address challenges.

5. Faith-based groups and nonprofits may be able to fill in some gaps.

The sacrifices grandparents make to love and care for their grandchildren deserves the highest recognition. It goes a long, long way in their life to build resiliency in spite of all they have faced. Neuroscience shows that the brain is “plastic.” It can heal. It can re-wire itself. It can thrive. You are giving your grandchildren the opportunity and stability for this to happen.

Lorri Irrgang is an author, a Certified Peer Recovery Coach and the President/CEO of “Let’s Get Real,” a family advocacy organization. She was a Family Peer Support Specialist for the Maryland Coalition of Families (MCF) and is a member of several local committees; Drug Free Communities Coalition and Drug Free Cecil. Lorri is an active volunteer and on the Board of Directors of Voices of Hope Maryland, a 501 (c)3 non-profit organization made of people in recovery, family members and allies who support recovery throughout Maryland.