Bill Slonaker supervises his two granddaughters, Izabella and Sopheira Winterroad, as Izabella ascends climbing wall at Highland Park in Kokomo on Aug. 30, 3017. The Slonakers have taken over as day-to-day guardians of their grandchildren. Staff photo by Kelly Lafferty Gerber
KOKOMO — Monica Slonaker knows well the challenges faced by grandparents thrust back into the role of day-to-day guardian; it’s been roughly three-and-a-half years since she took in her own grandchildren.
The two girls, her son’s daughters, now ages 3 and 7, were recently adopted by Slonaker and her husband Bill, who are Kokomo residents – a situation, driven by opioid and alcohol abuse, that’s become commonplace across Indiana.
When the youngest girl, Izabella, was four months old, Slonaker’s son and the girls’ mother lived in Johnson County, their lives compromised by drugs and alcohol. The lifestyle had already required intervention from the Indiana Department of Child Services.
Then one day, the mother showed up at Slonaker’s home, dropped off the girls and “pretty much left them,” she said.
The girls’ mother has five daughters, four of whom tested positive for methadone at birth. One of them, the 7-year-old Sopheira, was in the hospital for 21 days before making a full recovery.
And since the girls were dropped off at Slonaker’s home, the judicial system has determined that their father – Slonaker’s son, who suffers from alcoholism – and mother are not fit to maintain custody.
Adoption was determined to be the best option. Needless to say, it has changed the Slonakers’ lives.
Already with four adult children, the Slonakers, now in their 50s, have experienced a drastic shift in financial planning. Bill’s retirement age has been pushed back, money expected to fix up an old home has been pulled, and trips have been set aside.
“There’s just been a lot of things that we’ve had to put on hold,” she said, noting that college funds are already created. “Every extra bit that we have goes to them. And what we don’t have goes to them.”
Not that they’d change a thing.
“We are so blessed,” said Monica Slonaker. “I have never laughed so much in my life as I do now, because they are such a joy.
“Having it to do over again, being able to recognize what is most important – my health is pretty bad and it’s never going to get better, it’s going to get worse, but I don’t have the opportunity to just lay in bed and waste away and whine about it. I’ve got get up at 6 o’clock every morning and that’s a very good thing for me.”
In fact, Monica Slonaker has recently gone back to college to earn a Human Services degree and is applying to do volunteer work across the community – motivation she credits to her granddaughters.
It’s a complex role – complete with financial concerns, health struggles, experience and joy – that’s become increasingly common across Indiana.
A STORY OF NUMBERS
It’s no secret that a rise in grandfamilies has coincided with the ongoing drug epidemic.
As more children are removed from their parents’ homes, more kinship placement situations arise. And grandparents often serve as the first choice for DCS officials.
In conjunction, more than 60,000 grandparents are householders responsible for their grandchildren, and nearly 20 percent of those grandparents are in poverty. Twenty-seven percent have a disability.
Those figures have jumped dramatically in the last decade.
In 2007, roughly 81,500 children lived in grandparent-headed households, or 5.2 percent of children in the state, according to statics from the same agencies, and around 48,000 grandparents reported that they were responsible for the grandchildren living with them.
Twelve percent of those grandparents lived in poverty. Other statistics show clearly the impact substance abuse had on Indiana’s children.
In 2016, 52 percent of children removed from a home by the Indiana Department of Child Services were removed due to parent drug and/or alcohol abuse, up from 48 percent the previous year, according to the 2017 Indiana Youth Institute's Kids Count data book.
In a testimony before the United States Senate Special Committee on Aging in March, Jaia Peterson Lent, deputy executive director of Generations United, said that while “grandparents have been called upon to raise children for many reasons over the years, the current opioid and heroin epidemic is overwhelming many families and child welfare systems.”
Overall, more than 2.6 million grandparents are raising their grandchildren across the United States.
Lent added that “grandparents who are able to step in to protect and care for their grandchildren and keep them out of the child welfare system are, in a sense, punished for this critical and loving act,” explaining that grandparents raising children outside of foster care are less likely to receive “crucial supports and benefits.”
More benefits are important, she said, because despite the challenges faced by grandparents, research shows that placing children with grandparents or other relatives: reinforces safety, stability and well-being; reduces trauma; reinforces child’s sense of identity’ helps keeps brothers and sisters together; honors family and cultural ties; and increases the likelihood of having a permanent home.
'IT TAKES A VILLAGE'
Katina Silver, director of the CASA, or Court Appointed Special Advocate, program in Howard County, explained that grandparents have for decades filled the parenting void for young children.
But with the opioid and addiction epidemic increasing the number of kids in the system, she said, more grandparents than ever are embarking on a second parenting journey.
“DCS has always tried to place [kids] with a relative, so I’ve always consistently seen kids go with their grandparents,” said Silver, who has been with Howard County CASA, for which Slonaker is a volunteer, for 19 years.
“But now we have more kids than ever because of the drug problem, so, yes, we have more kids now with grandparents due to the drug issues.”
It can be difficult, she noted, for grandparents to adjust from the role of loving, doting grandpa or grandma to that of a stable day-to-day guardian. And it can be a role change that isn’t always consciously addressed.
“You have to set limits, you have to discipline, you have to do the parental stuff,” she said. “It’s not really something [grandparents] mention. I don’t think that they necessarily are aware of it initially, until someone kind of points it out to them.”
Another issue is the newfound financial strain for people who are often nearing or already into retirement. Many live on a fixed income. And almost none of them are prepared for one or multiple mouths to feed.
It’s a situation, noted Silver, that is exacerbated by the lack of resources available to grandparents who now serve as primary caregivers.
“They’re not foster parents, so they’re not being paid to keep their grandchildren, so they have to pay for everything that child needs other than medical, because they get Medicaid because they’re wards of the state,” she said.
Ultimately, explained Silver, a subsidy is provided to grandparents if parental rights are terminated and they decide to adopt. But if grandparents instead choose a guardianship, financial assistance is not available.
This has led to a higher number of adoptions by grandparents, even if the available resources are still slim.
“There’s not a lot support for grandparents. For foster parents, whoever they’re licensed through, they have support systems. But grandparents, they do not have those outside support systems,” she said.
Echoing many of Silver’s comments was Annette Craycraft, executive director of East Central Indiana CASA, based out of Anderson.
Due to a lack of foster parents, Craycraft said, the state system has become especially more reliant upon grandparents, some of whom are in their 40s, others who stretch into their 80s and 90s.
“Some of them are very happy to do it, some of them do it because they feel like they have to because they don’t want to see their grandkids enter the system,” she said.
There are situations, however, where grandparents aren’t viable placements because they too had substantiated allegations filed against them, creating a state of cyclical abuse or neglect.
Oftentimes this leads to great-grandparents opening up their home.
“I think the thing that is most odd is we are seeing more great-grandparents have placement instead of grandparents. This used to not be the case,” said Craycraft, highlighting one great-grandmother who worries about her physical and financial capacity to raise a child, but does not want to create another disruption, or change of placement, in the child’s life.
Regardless of whether a grandparent or great-grandparent is placed back into a parenting role, a difficult adjustment should be expected, one that can include changing social norms associated with raising a child.
One such example is safe sleep practices.
“When I was a child – I was born in the early 70s – back then they told you to lay your baby on the belly,” Craycraft said. “Now, they have you lay the baby on the back, and nothing in the crib, or you can’t lay the baby in the bed because they get suffocated if they get extra blankets around their mouth.
“That’s one example where if you have older grandparents, they think ‘Well I did fine with my kids. They survived.’ But the social norm just for even safe sleeping is different now.”
And while Craycraft explained that there is a need for more foster parents, she said the state and federal philosophy leans toward kinship care or family placement, specifically involving grandparents.
So what’s needed? A group effort that includes aunts, uncles, cousins and more, Craycraft said.
“Letting the community know that – kind of like the ‘it takes a village’ mentality – when children enter the system, the whole family could help, and they could contact the child welfare department when that child is removed and say, ‘I would be willing to care for my niece or nephew or cousin’ or whomever,” she said.