Across the country, people are becoming unexpected caregivers of children whose parents have become addicted to opioids. In most states, they’re doing it with little to no help at all.
For more than a decade, Mercedes Bristol and Delia Martinez have been raising children they never expected to care for. The two women got an out-of-the-blue call from the state of Texas, telling them to come pick the kids up or they’d go into the state’s care. Bristol and Martinez aren’t foster parents; they’re part of the growing number of grandparents across the country who have to take conservatorship over their grandchildren.
After her son became addicted to drugs, Bristol, who is single, was tasked with raising his five children by herself. Martinez and her husband had to put retirement on hold in order to provide for their three grandchildren after her son went to jail. As they began navigating the complex and bureaucratic network of family services in Texas, they discovered two things: the growing number of grandparents or other relatives that had taken over for parents who developed addictions to opiates, and the lack of a centralized support system for these unexpected caregivers.
Bristol and Martinez live in San Antonio, a prominent center in the opioid crisis. Bexar County sees the most births of babies with opioid withdrawal symptoms and the third-highest overdose rate in Texas. With the jump in opioid usage and abuse, there has been a 6 percent increase in children being raised by relatives nationwide.
Though the city and county formed a joint task force to study and combat the issue of opioid abuse, little has been done to meaningfully address the estimated issue of the some 30,000 displaced children in the area. That task force, formed in August and bolstered by an additional $3 million federal grant in November, is made up of local public-health officials and recovery experts.
Their focus has been on increasing the availability of overdose reversal drugs to first responders, working with doctors to adjust their prescription habits, and educating the community on the dangers of opioid use. So far, nothing has been said about the family members left behind.
Bristol and Martinez started to hear the same story from grandparents they would meet at a local support group started by people in similar situations. A grandparent or older relative would get a call from Texas’ Department of Family and Protective Services informing them that a parent had tested positive for opiates. They could either pick up the child or let the child be placed in foster care. After that, DFPS stopped helping the displaced children.
“So she took off, of course, to go pick up the baby,” Martinez says. “After she took them home, she’s calling them asking if there’s any way they could help, and they said no because she took the baby home already and they closed the case.”