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Opinion Columns

Opinion: Colorado can save children by helping grandparents who care for their kin

Colorado’s child welfare sector is transforming to strengthen families, eventually reduce the number of children being removed from their homes because of abuse and neglect, and reallocate existing public funding streams to the benefit of children, families and Colorado taxpayers.  

Greater prioritization of foster or kinship placements for children whose trauma necessitates removal from their biological parents is central to the Colorado’s emerging sector strategy.

Edward “Ned” Breslin. (Handout)

This is not new per se, but it is being rightly re-emphasized as children generally heal best in stable homes, versus residential facilities.

Unfortunately, we are seeing a dramatic decline in the number of families willing to foster and adopt across the United States. Foster family turnover is an astonishing 30-60 percent annually as burnout undermines this wonderful community.   

This downward trend in fostering and adoption is occurring as the need for alternative homes for children experiencing trauma grows, due largely but not exclusively by our state’s opioid epidemic.

Colorado, like many states, is working hard to recruit more foster families, but the need for safe homes exceeds Colorado’s foster/adoptive capacity. Fourteen Colorado children need homes every day, and available options do not meet this crushing demand.

While foster care receives the most visible attention in the child welfare system, placing a child experiencing trauma with relatives is actually the smartest, most thoughtful option on the table, should removal from the home be required.

Children generally know the kin they are placed with, stay connected to their biological network when placed with kin, feel less abandoned, and have the real advantage of a greater sense of permanence as foster parenting is, by definition, temporary.

Colorado has rightly embraced kinship placement as a clear healing pathway for children, with a 95% increase in the number of children living with relatives across our state between 2012-16.  

And who exactly are these kin?  Increasingly, they are grandparents.

READ:Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

Nationally, over 2.9 million grandparents have seen their retirement swerve unexpectedly back toward raising children. Over 48,000 Colorado grandparents are primary caregivers for their grandchildren, a number that grows as Colorado’s opioid epidemic persists.

I spend considerable time with grandparents who care for, and increasingly adopt, their grandchildren across Colorado. My emotions are mixed as I watch children being cared for in remarkable ways, healing as they probably would not elsewhere, while grandparents simultaneously buckle under the financial and emotional strain of their unexpected new responsibilities.

I am always alarmed by their isolation and grief, which weighs heavily upon these frontline warriors.  

I recently went to a well-deserved celebration for Tracey (name changed to protect her privacy). Tracey truly demonstrates the overused word “resilience,” as her first act in life — as a newborn baby — was to detox from heroin. She draws from that reservoir of resilience every day as she surges toward her 10th birthday, living with her 74-year-old grandparents (now mom and dad) whose love is profound and whose home is safe and secure, but who are also ill-equipped to raise a child their age, and who worry what life will look like 10 years from now, when they are in their mid-80s.

Tracey’s healing journey will be greatly influenced by the lasting effects of in-utero heroin exposure. Children born addicted to heroin are disproportionately hyperactive, developmentally delayed and inattentive. Cognitive and behavioral challenges are common. Tracey is small for her age and can be “a handful.” Tracey exceeds academic expectations and recently joined a local Boys & Girls Club where she can run, laugh and be exuberant.

Tracey’s celebration is poorly attended because her grandparents (now parents) are overwhelmed, isolated from their community and bearing enormous shame. Tracey’s grandmother’s pain is profound as she believes she was a “bad mother” who did not raise her daughter, who is now suffering from addiction, “right.”

Nothing could be further from the truth, but this narrative is whispered in the community, reinforcing her sorrow and undermining the family’s healing. The truth is that Tracey’s grandparents are, like many grandparents, the best healing home available for their granddaughter.  

Colorado can tangibly help grandparents through simple legislative tweaks to allow existing child welfare financing, currently offered to foster families, to include kin as well. Families on Social Security should not have to financially implode when asked to support children experiencing trauma.

This adjustment in financing to include kin will save children, families and Colorado taxpayers money and heartache. The reform does not ask for more money but rather wisely reallocates existing funding.  

Moreover, focusing both funding and attention on earlier interventions and impactful substance abuse programs may have helped Tracey’s mom in ways that would have radically changed this narrative overall.

This April, National Child Abuse Prevention Month, let us continue transforming child welfare to strengthen families and support the more than 48,000 Colorado grandparents who have not retired their caregiving duties and whose compassion and love deserve ours as well.

Edward D. Breslin (Ned) is the president and CEO of the Tennyson Center for Children.