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During Massachusets Heroin Crisis, Number Of Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Grows

Thomas Marthinsen
Creative Commons
Heroin addiction is increasing across New England.

The children often have questions for their grandmother, who just tells the kids their mom is in a place where she is getting better.

It’s nothing new that family steps in when family needs help. But more and more grandparents are raising grandchildren. At the center of this? Prescription drug and heroin addiction.

It takes a phone call and a lot of courage to start the process of involuntarily committing a family member for substance abuse. In Massachusetts, it’s just about the last resort. Michelle Howe knows this all too well. She made the call on her daughter.

Families often call this being “sectioned,” after Massachusetts State Law Chapter 123, Section 35.

“She knew we were dong it, so we knew where she was, and we could tell the court where to find her,” Howe says.

After her daughter was picked up, Howe went before the judge, then a doctor, and then there were conversations between the doctor and the family, and then the calls began to find an available bed in a treatment center, or at the very least, some kind of lock-up, so her daughter could start to get clean.

A Slow But Steady Increase

Franklin County courts used to see two or three Section 35s a month come through, now it’s two or three a day, and most, say court workers, are heroin related.

In Howe’s case, and for several other people waiting here at Probate and Family Court, in Greenfield, Massachusetts, young children are involved. Over the last four years, there’s been a slow but steady increase in the number of grandparents seeking guardianship of their grandkids.  Although not all petitions for custody are substance abuse related, in Franklin County last year 69 were filed , 56 were from grandparents like Howe.

“When I first took the kids she was very angry with me,” Howe says. “But after time, she realized, we did it so she could get better herself.”

Credit Charlie Smart / Data from Massachusetts BSAS
Data from Massachusetts BSAS
Heroin use is on the rise in Massachusetts.

Howe is not sure exactly when or why her daughter, Ashley Erhoe, started using, but she says the people her daughter hung out with were using. And then a crisis hit. The father of Erhoe’s new baby died, not from drugs, but from a brain aneurysm. Howe says her daughter got really depressed.

“Where she was living was not the best place so I think removing her from this area and placing her in a treatment center not close to here was helpful,” Howe says.

Over the months, Erhoe has been in numerous facilities around the state. Her current treatment center is in Pittsfield. She landed a rare apartment in a “Safe Harbor Home” where children can live if parents stay drug free.

‘They Talk To Her Every Night’

Early on, to help with withdrawal, Erhoe was prescribed the opioid blockers Suboxone and Vivitrol, but Howe says her daughter didn’t like the side effects and now goes to Narcotics Anonymous meetings. While she’s trying to stay clean, she does get to see her kids, who are ages two and five. They often have questions for their grandmother, who says she just tells the kids their mom is in a place where she is getting better.

“And they understand that,” Howe says. “They talk to her every night on the phone.”

Howe has had custody of the kids for almost two years. She believes her daughter is getting better, and she and her daughter are in court this day, Erhoe by phone, to ask Judge Beth Crawford to return custody of the kids to their mom.

Crawford establishes that Erhoe can hear them. And probate officer Bette Babinski begins her report.

“Judge, I’ve not spoken with the mother,” Babinski says. “I did have the opportunity to speak with the grandmother… ”

Babinski goes on to talk about the house rules where Erhoe lives, that Erhoe is subject to frequent drug screenings, and that she seems to be working hard to stay clean and reunite with her children.

‘They’re In a Corner. They’re Scared.’

In Probate and Family Court, cases are civil not criminal. Babinski and her colleagues are facilitators, not lawyers. They meet with all sides and report to the judge the family’s often opposing positions. Of the custody cases that come into this courtroom, Babinski says the majority involve substance abuse. Twenty years ago it was alcohol, now she says, it’s  heroin and prescription opioids.

“What we are seeing a lot of is that grandparents are coming in because the stability piece isn’t there,” Babinski says, "I mean, a lot of [the parents] are homeless, they’re in and out of jail, they’re in and out of treatment programs.”

There's great resistance from adult children. Because of their addiction they can't see how unsafe the situation is.

Taking custody of your children’s children through a court of law is a time of reckoning for families and Babinski says it doesn’t always fix what’s broken.

“I can’t imagine sitting across the table from my daughter saying, ‘You have a problem. I need to take care of your child,'” Babinski says.

There’s great resistance from adult children, Babinski says, and because of their addiction they can’t see how unsafe the situation is.

“They’re in a corner. They’re scared. They don’t want to admit they have a problem,” Babinski says, and they don’t want to lose their children.

In the courtroom, after listening for a few minutes, Judge Crawford asks Erhoe about her drug treatment over the past two years and then the judge asks Howe, her mother, about an affidavit she filed in December 2014, dismissing her petition to resign as guardian.

“At that point, mom had gotten kicked out of a program for using two times?” Crawford asks.

Howe says her daughter wasn’t using heroin. She was using whippets [an inhalant] something available at a gas station, she says.

“And she probably wouldn’t have gotten in trouble for it, but she was honest,” Howe adds.

Crawford says she appreciates the honesty, but Erhoe’s  actions still were a sort of substance abuse.

Middlesex Probate and Family Court in Cambridge.
Credit Commonwealth of Massachusetts
Commonwealth of Massachusetts
Middlesex Probate and Family Court in Cambridge.

“Is that correct?” she asks Erhoe, who responds, “yes.”

At this point, the judge quickly says she won’t give full guardianship to Erhoe, but she is willing to grant co-guardianship, with the grandmother.  That would at least make Erhoe a custodian.

“I assume that would allow you to stay in program. Is that your understanding?” Crawford asks.

Erhoe hesitates. She says she’s concerned she has to have full guardianship of the kids, or she won’t be allowed to stay where she is. Erhoe’s mother is concerned too.

Survey: Four In Five Cases Because Of Heroin

Michelle Howe is among 34,000 grandparents in Massachusetts raising grandchildren, according to 2013 census data, a 20 percent increase since 2005.  A state commission focusing on grandparents raising grandchildren sent out a survey this spring. Out of 150 responses, about 80 percent are in this family situation because of opioid use by an adult son or daughter.

In many cases, grandparents will raise the kids until they’re out on their own. But if Ashley Erhoe does stay drug free, her children could join her in Pittsfield by mid-June.

This report was originally published by New England Public Radio.

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