CLARKSBURG, W.Va. – Michelle Peters lives in a typical American house on a hill with toys in the lawn — each toy symbolizing childhood memories in progress. But under different circumstances, the toys would be packed up and put away by now, with her kids decades away from princesses and dinosaurs. While sitting in her kitchen, Michelle reflects on the phone call she received years ago that changed everything.
“I’ve always wanted to be a grandparent, you know?” said Michelle. “When you get your family and your kids go to college and they start their life and stuff, but when you get that call, that you have to take care of your grandchild, it’s hard. I didn’t want to do this. I like to have my own time to myself–now, I love my grandkids, but that line where you’re a grandparent [and] you’re a mother–that’s hard.”
Getting the call that your grandchild has been removed from their home is never a call anyone wants to receive, but it’s a reality for many West Virginians. More than half of grandparents in West Virginia who live with their grandchildren who are 18 or younger are responsible for them, according to the 2019 U.S. Census numbers, making West Virginia the second in the nation for grandparents raising grandchildren.
Top Five States with the Highest Rates of Grandparents Raising Grandchildren
And the numbers only continue rising. Statistics from the West Virginia DHHR explained that not only is there a general increase of kids in foster care, but that kinship and relative placements are on the rise. Leah Smith, Recruiter at NECCO, explained more about the state’s preference in situations where a child would be removed from a home.
“Really in the law, the goal is reunification. That’s number one,” said Smith. “There is a grandparents statute that gives preference to grandparents, but that’s about as far as it goes. I know that we do–just as a state and as West Virginians–we like to keep children with their families. I mean, that’s huge, so we all do our best to make that happen. And if it’s a possibility, if it’s a safe home, then that’s our goal, and that’s what we push for.”
While each situation is different, many experts are linking the drug epidemic in West Virginia to the foster care crisis the state is currently going through. Data from the National Data Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect indicates that 51% of kids in foster care enter because of parental substance abuse, compared to the 38% national average.
Michelle shared her story of how she ended up adopting two of her grandchildren.
“My daughter had a full scholarship at Fairmont State doing cross country, and she was sixth in the state. She got introduced to the wrong person [and] started doing drugs,” recalled Michelle. “I didn’t even know that she was doing drugs at the time. She was pregnant, and my granddaughter, Khloe, was a month premature, and CPS got ahold of me, and I started taking care of Khloe and raising her and eventually adopting her. And, I have Josh now, and that’s just the same process, but he had withdrawals when he was born, and several drug in his system and everything, so we adopted him, too.”
Healthy Grandfamilies is a program by the West Virginia State University Department of Social Work and WVSU Extension Service that was created in direct response to the increase in kinship families. Last year, we interviewed them about the program when classes were in-person.
“The sessions are eight weeks. We meet once a week for two hours. We provide a meal, which are all donated from different restaurants and organizations in Harrison County. We provide childcare,” explained Riley Freeland, Former Social Worker at the Grand Families Program of Harrison County. “We have presenters come in and they present on the topic, whatever it may be, and they really range from nutrition to parenting in the 21st century, which is a big one, to addiction and trauma, and how to actually advocate for their own health literacy and stuff like that.”
Since the pandemic, Julie Salmon now heads the Harrison County program, and the meetings have moved online. Salmon said the pandemic has also caused them to do more outreach, such as delivering food, making sure to call to check up on the grandfamilies, and trying to connect them with resources.
“I think it’s interesting. You get the idea that they’re not tech savvy, and I think that’s false. I think this group is more tech savvy than we think,” explained Salmon. “So, I think [the biggest struggle is] just that the kids are home, so that’s a challenge to have a support group virtually when your kids are around, and you don’t want them to hear because these are sensitive adult topics sometimes.”
Michelle is also a Healthy Grandfamilies participant. She said that having the support of other grandparents and the comradery of the program hasn’t changed, and that was one of the most important parts of the program to her, especially with the isolation associated with COVID-19.
“[The pandemic is] hard because I don’t take the kids to Walmart or anything because of their health conditions–because both of them have asthma and allergies, and Josh has ended up in the hospital this year because of it and having an asthma attack,” explained Michelle. “With the grandparents, us doing the phone calls for an hour, an hour and a half every two weeks–it’s great just get in touch with one another and take turns and ask how everyone is doing, so it’s nice to just connect with other grandparents. Even though the COVID situation is still there, we still try to stay connected with each other.”
Michelle said that even aside from COVID-19, isolation can be a huge problem for grandfamilies, and it inspired her to write a book called “From the Heart of a Grandparent Incorporated” that tells short stories of grandparents raising grandchildren. When the book is published, she wants the proceeds to go to grandparents who need immediate assistance.
“The grandparents, they always think that they’re alone. That was my worst fear, mainly because I’m starting school all over again for Khloe and Josh and going to school and realizing, ok, there’s going to be younger parents there,” explained Michelle. “But now, it isn’t [like that] because there’s a lot of people that are raising their grandchildren, so when I go to that school, and I’m sitting there waiting for her to come outside, and I see other grandparents out there, I know I’m not alone. So, I just wanted grandparents to realize that they’re not alone, and we all need to stick together and be there for one another.”
If anyone is interested in having their story be published in Michelle Peters’ book, you can contact Michelle at 304-838-2881.
Salmon said the Healthy Grandfamilies program is currently trying to plan an in-person meeting in the near future. But in the meantime, she said any kinship family can give her a call if they need help and she can connect the family with resources. She said the program prides itself in finding out solutions to any problems a family might be facing, even if they don’t already have the information.
“They don’t need to take the classes. That’s a huge component of ours, but it doesn’t have to be a formalized relationship that I have with them,” Salmon explained.
Families can contact Julie Salmon by calling 304-326-7785 or emailing JulieSalmon@wvfamilyservices.org
Salmon also said that one of the biggest resources she offers grandparents is legal help–being able to understand some of the legal language and finding advocacy and support.
“I would say that every situation is unique to how a grandparent will ultimately end up raising a grandchild,” explained Salmon. “Sometimes they never move on to just an informal custodianship, so I think that status to be able to take them to a doctor, to be able to navigate the school system, those are the things that are really important because you have to take the child to the doctor. You got to be able to have the authority to do it and get the treatment if they need it.”
NECCO is another organization that can help kinships with the legal aspect of the situation. The agency provides the family with a team of people who specialize in the foster care system and adoption.
“You have your NECCO case manager, you have your recruiter, you have your home resource coordinator, so you’ve got all these people that can make all these things happen for you and answer all your questions. You have this 24 hour crisis line, it just opens up a whole new door of support,” explained Smith.
“Every organization in West Virginia is bracing for this massive influx of referrals”
In the past year, the number of children in foster care in West Virginia has slightly decreased. Some speculate that the numbers could be due to a lack of reports during the pandemic, though, since kids weren’t going to school in-person.
“Every organization in West Virginia is bracing for this massive influx of referrals because our teachers are the ones who see these children everyday. They would notice if they are being underfed or if they’re bruised, or if something is wrong with them, and those are our mandated reporters. Those are the people making those phone calls, and a lot of these children, they just haven’t seen in a long time, or they’re not seeing frequently enough to make that determination of should they make that call.
So, at this point with the coronavirus, it seems like our numbers have gone down a bit. They’re still extraordinarily high. It’s a ridiculous crisis that we’re in right now, but we’re expecting that to boom, and as sad as it sounds, there are never enough homes, whether it’s kinship homes or regular foster homes, so to think that we’re going to have this massive increase in referrals and all these children that are going to need homes–it’s very scary. It’s sad, and we’re all just doing what we can to step up to try to make a difference and try to open as many homes as we can. Safe, loving spaces for these kids so that they have somewhere to go once those calls are made,” said Smith.
Leah Smith was a kinship foster parent before becoming a recruiter for NECCO. She said if someone is worried that they might have to step in for a loved one, they should go ahead and get licensed, either with NECCO or the DHHR. The classes to get licensed are free, and there’s no obligation to open up your home right away.
“Because in my case, I always say I wish I could have gotten licensed sooner so that I wasn’t scrambling to get all that done after my son was already in foster care,” Smith explained. “So if you have a relative, if you know of a child that you have a relationship with or a bond with and it seems like they might be taken into CPS care at some point, it couldn’t hurt to go ahead and start the licensing process and get that going, and that way you’re ready and if that ever happens, God forbid. That’s not something we want to hear, but if it does happen, you have a leg up, and you can say, ‘I’m ready, come out and check me out and bring the child.’”
Peters’ advice is also to try to get prepared and to be willing to accept help.
“When I got Khloe, she was very young, and I had to feed her every hour, and not being prepared in that situation was very hard for me because I didn’t get a lot of sleep. So, my advice would be to try to be prepared,” Peters advised. “I know that’s not easy because when you get that phone call like I did, and you’re on the spot, are you willing to take care of your grandchild? Absolutely yes, but just try to be prepared and there’s other funding out there for grandparents, and just reach out to family friends, and they’ll help. There’s a lot of resources out there that’s willing to help.”
- Healthy Grandfamilies – a program to connect with other grandparents and learn about other resources
- NECCO – a foster agency
- Grandfamilies.org – provides information and resources on a wide range of grandparent-related topics
- West Virginia Grandfacts State Fact Sheet – provides facts and West Virginia-specific resources and information, updated March 2021
- West Virginia Family Resource Network – county-specific offices that can connect any family with resources or help
- WV211 – hotline for any West Virginian to get information or help. Text a zip code to 898-211, chat online, or simply call 211
- Legal Aid of West Virginia – free legal assistance for kinship and foster parents