Fostering new families: a change in family dynamics
Story, photos and video by Anna N. Saab
Red, wispy pigtails bounced from the head of Michelle Peters' granddaughter as she raced through the yard. It was a sunny Wednesday morning in May in Harrison County, where Peters lives with her two grandchildren.
“When I first got the news that I was a grandmother I was excited—thrilled. Then, when I got the news I had to take care of her, it was very stressful,” Peters said.
Twenty-five years ago, Peters became a mother for the first time. Now, Peters has become a full-time caregiver all over again, among thousands of grandparents in West Virginia who have stepped in to raise children orphaned or abandoned by parents who struggle with addiction.
Data from Kids Count, a project by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, found that
as of 2017,
six percent of West Virginia’s children were being raised away
from their parents—often with grandparents.
“About 50,000 children in West Virginia were being raised by grandparents and that was an estimate,” said Bonnie Dunn, co-director of Healthy Grandfamilies at West Virginia State University.
Healthy Grandfamilies was founded in 2016 after Dunn and her colleague, Dr. Brenda Wamsley, applied for a grant. Dunn said about 85 percent of grandparents involved in her program have been affected by the opioid epidemic.Bonnie Dunn of Healthy Grandfamilies points to the variety of grandparent nicknames displayed on a poster. Grandparents signed their names in place of leaves on the tree.
“I had a grandfather who stayed in [the] NICU for several weeks. Grandpa was 70. He had to go back to work. He and his wife ended up with two children,” Dunn said.
Grandparents aren’t the only ones who have taken in displaced children. Aunts, uncles, teachers and close family friends have also stepped in.
Officials say that kinship care is the preferred placement option when Child Protective Services gets involved and children enter the foster care system. As of May , there were 3,397 children in kinship care, according to the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources.
Regina Brumfield, of Huntington, said she called on family when she knew she couldn't care for her children any longer. Though she was fighting a battle with addiction, she didn't want to send her children away to strangers.
“I couldn't take care of myself, so I actually, I contacted my daughter's aunt who eventually ended up getting her before CPS was even involved,” Brumfield said.Michelle Peters lifts Khloe up to the top of the pool in their backyard so the two can test the water temperature. Peters has full custody of her granddaughter.
Experts say it’s not uncommon for grandparents to have to go back to work in order to make enough money to afford to pay for taking care of their grandchildren.
Counties around the state are forming coalitions to tackle the lack of resources. Healthy Grandfamilies’ model of training has been replicated in counties around the state, and the Dunn is working to expand the program to all 55 counties by the end of 2019.
Caregivers from the surrounding community attend a Healthy Grandfamilies training in Terra Alta.
Dunn said that many grandparents don’t reach out for help from the state because they’re afraid that their grandchildren will be taken from them.
"If you become a diabetic, there is the Diabetes Association. You've got a child that has autism? You can go to that organization," Dunn said. "The list goes on, but there is no place for a grandparent who has suddenly found themselves raising grandchildren."