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Opioid addiction among parents leads to more grandparents raising grandchildren

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In the midst of the hustle and bustle that was Vicky Ruvido’s kitchen on Thanksgiving morning 2012, she heard her cellphone ding with an incoming text message.

It was from her daughter asking to be picked up in Abington, about 20 minutes south of Ruvido’s Braintree home.

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Even at this most traditional holiday family gathering, Ruvido wasn’t expecting her daughter to be there. The text was the first time Ruvido had heard from her heroin-addicted daughter in nearly two years.

After Ruvido brought her home, her daughter, visibly high, sat down and leaned back on the couch, her coat parting to reveal a bump.

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“And I said, ‘My God, you’re pregnant.’ She goes, ‘No, I’m not pregnant,’ ” Ruvido said in an interview from her kitchen table, where she recalled the awkwardness of that day.

Her daughter was in fact about 5½ months pregnant. In February 2013, she gave birth to a daughter about six weeks premature and exposed to drugs. With no drugs in her own system after the birth, Ruvido’s daughter was discharged, leaving the baby with Ruvido, who now has legal custody.

Ruvido said her granddaughter, now an energetic 2-year-old who loves the Disney film “Frozen,” has been a gift for her and her close-knit family. But she added that at 56, she expected to be spending this time of her life going on cruises, not raising a baby.

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Like Ruvido, an increasing number of retirement-age parents have found themselves raising grandchildren because of their own children’s drug addictions, most recently fueled by the growing opioid epidemic, which claimed the lives of more than 1,000 people last year in Massachusetts.

In the last 10 months of 2014, 1,702 infants born in Massachusetts were exposed to drugs, according to the state’s Department of Children and Families, which began using a new method of tracking drug exposure in newborns in March 2014. Most recently, many hospitals have reported a spike in infants’ exposure to opioids, from heroin to prescription drugs like OxyContin, or a combination of both.

Some addicted women often choose to go on prescription methadone, also an opioid, to help reduce withdrawal symptoms once they realize they’re pregnant, said Lynn D’Angelo, nurse manager at South Shore Hospital in Weymouth.

“In our area I would say it’s mostly opioid,” D’Angelo said of recent drug-exposed births. “Absolutely we are trending in the wrong direction.”

Last year, 62 infants were born with drugs in their systems and were treated with medication at South Shore Hospital, compared with 35 in 2011 and 13 in 2008. As of late April this year, the hospital has treated nine babies exposed to drugs.

Kerry Bickford, a member of the Commission on the Status of Grandparents Raising Children, established by the Legislature in 2008, said a survey of support groups around the state conducted in March found that 80 percent of people raising their children’s children had custody as a result of substance abuse issues.

For many, she said, the combination of raising grandchildren and the continuous burden of concern for their addicted son or daughter can be a stressful and isolating experience.

“Stress and fatigue is something that basically doesn’t go away,” Bickford said. “It’s a double whammy.”

Often, grandparents have to grapple with devastating choices, such as being forced to move out of their senior housing program because the facilities don’t allow live-in children, or putting the grandchild in foster care because health or financial barriers prevent them from taking custody.

Ruvido said foster care wasn’t an option for her. At first she had to cut her hours at work in half to take care of her granddaughter, but she was able to return to work full time after receiving a state voucher that pays for day care.

“This is our life now,” said Ruvido, adding that she occasionally receives texts from her daughter but does not know where she is staying. “It’s a life we didn’t plan for, but I could never see her in the [foster care] system. I could never say, ‘No, I don’t want her.’ ”

Grandparents, already stressed from their children’s drug use, should seek local support groups to help them deal with the challenges of raising a child and to meet people their age who can relate, said Joanne Peterson, executive director of Learn to Cope, a support network for families dealing with addiction.

“It puts a real strain on a relationship, financially, emotionally, and physically because you’re tired now. Now you’re in your 50s and 60s raising a child,” she said. “Some have had to leave jobs or retire early to take care of children, or continue working and find day care. . . . It’s a huge change.”

Peterson said the program has recently seen more grandparents with custody of grandchildren due to the opioid crisis. Robin Richard of Raynham was one of them.

Five years ago, Richard’s oldest daughter gave birth to a boy but struggled with her addiction to prescription pills and later to heroin. Richard said her daughter, who lived with her, began hiding needles around the house. When Richard found a needle wrapped in a sock under the baby’s crib, she said it was a breaking point for her. She sent her daughter to a rehab facility and refused to let her come back until she was clean — a tough-love approach she learned from going to Learn to Cope meetings.

While her daughter continued to struggle, Richard and her husband took legal custody of their grandson.

“It’s so hard. My husband is 56; I’m 50. I work full time, he’s trying to run a business, and we have a 4-year-old,” Richard said. “I don’t have any friends with kids his age. . . . But we’re not stopping our lives because of him. We’re doing this with him. We take him on vacations. He’s well adjusted, he’s a funny kid, and I love him.”

Richard said her daughter has been sober for a couple of months, lives in a halfway house in Florida, and is working full-time. She is hoping her daughter comes back to Massachusetts after a year of sobriety, so she can begin to be a grandmother.

“She’s alive,” said Richard, who asked that her daughter’s name not be revealed, to protect her privacy. “And I hope for a future with her and her son.”

Richard’s daughter said in a phone interview that not being with her son is “like having your heart ripped out of your chest and getting stomped on every day,” but she acknowledged that being in treatment is the best thing for her son. She said that she is grateful her mother is taking care of her son, but that she is looking forward to reclaiming her role as his mother.

“I can’t be there for him until I can be there for myself,” she said.

Katheleen Conti can be reached at kconti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKConti.
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