For three years, Nelsonville resident Donna Summerfield, 55, raised her daughter’s two young children while juggling jobs at a local fast-food restaurant and elsewhere.
Despite how hard things got at times, Summerfield – who was interviewed by The Athens NEWS during Nelsonville’s Thursday night Community Dinner on June 6 – said she’s glad she could be there for Blayze, 10, and Brooklynn, 8.
“I’m just glad I was there to do it… It means they didn’t get put into the (foster-care) system,” Summerfield said
Summerfield is just one of hundreds of grandparents in Athens County – and thousands of grandparents in Ohio – who are raising their grandchildren. Cathy Hill, executive director of Athens County Children Services, said that number has grown in recent years as the number of children in Ohio’s foster-care system has jumped from around 12,000 a few years ago to over 15,000 now.
“However, we only have 7,000 licensed foster homes in Ohio, so you can kind of do the math on that,” she said.
Hill said that part of the reason for that increase is the opioid epidemic that has hit Ohio particularly hard. The NEWS previously reported that in Athens County alone, substance abuse was a factor in 26 percent of the 1,866 total referrals for child abuse and neglect to Athens County Children Services last year.
When parents cannot take care of their children, the burden increasingly is placed on what Hill calls “kinship families.” And that’s for a good reason: research consistently has shown that children in the foster-care and child-protective services system cope far better when they are placed with family members such as grandparents rather than unrelated strangers.
“They often have less trauma of being removed from their family because they have natural relationship with a kinship caregiver or grandma or aunt or uncle… Foster parents are generally very well trained, and they help with children but it’s a big deal in a child’s life to be removed from their parents,” Hill said.
Summerfield and her daughter, Ashley Aeiker, 31, are open about the fact that Aeiker struggled with an addiction to heroin and opiates for several years, which is why Summerfield was raising Aeiker’s two children. Aeiker said during the Community Dinner meeting in Nelsonville June 6 that she’s been drug-free for a year now after spending multiple months in the hospital. Summerfield is still helping her raise the children, but the burden is no longer entirely on the grandmother (they all together now).
Aeiker said that she’s thankful for her mother’s help in raising the children, and said she’s glad to be back in their lives.
“It’s been pretty good; we do a lot of outdoors activities, and they’re a part of my recovery with me,” she said. “I’m getting ready to go on a retreat with them for families in recovery… and I’m planning on starting a survivors union group here in Nelsonville.”
Aeiker stated that serious problems exist in Nelsonville, noting that people need to acknowledge a lot of underlying factors as to how and why people get addicted to opioids and other drugs. She has become an advocate for change in the community as well, and lately has been advocating for the Nelsonville Police Department to carry the opioid overdose-reversal drug Narcan in their cruisers.
“They’re the only emergency services in our county that doesn’t carry (Narcan),” she said.
Aeiker herself said she administered Narcan to her neighbor who was overdosing recently, saving her life. She added that she knew two people who died of drug overdoses in Nelsonville the week before that.
AT THE COMMUNITY DINNER in Nelsonville on June 6, several other grandmothers who were raising their grandchildren spoke to The NEWS.
Daisy Anderson, 59, said she’s been raising five kids between the ages of 10 and 15 for the last three years. This started when her daughter’s struggle with a methamphetamine addiction began. She acknowledged that it’s hard work.
“Sometimes they go through fits, and you just have to give them their space,” she said.
However, things are looking up for Anderson; her daughter had just gotten out of rehab when Anderson spoke with The NEWS, and will be coming back to live with Anderson and the children.
“It’s going to take them a while to get adjusted, she’s been gone for so long,” Anderson said.
Tammy Exline, 45, another Community Dinner attendee, also has been helping raise her daughter’s two children, ages 2 and 3. However, her daughter is still very much in the children’s lives; she just works full-time and is going to college at the same time, so Exline’s support is needed.
“I thought when my baby turned 18 a couple years ago that I’d be done with it (raising children),” Exline said.
Still, she said she doesn’t mind much. She loves her grandkids, she said.
SUPPORT IS AVAILABLE in Athens County for “kinship caregivers,” ACCS’s Hill said. Athens County Job & Family Services administers a program that provides cash assistance and Medicaid for grandparents and other related caregivers of children.
ACCS also has a funding support system for kinship caregivers who have been evaluated by ACCS. Children Services and community organization Integrated Services also offer training, classes and other support services for kinship caregivers, including parenting classes and counseling.
The NEWS sat down and spoke with another grandmother who was involved in the Children Services system and a social worker who worked with her on her case. That case involved the grandmother caring for three grandchildren in recent years. The grandmother and social worker asked for anonymity, which The NEWS granted because of the difficult circumstances the children had been in. We’ll call the grandmother Rose.
Rose, 60, said she got involved with raising the children after an allegation of abuse arose in the children’s original home. Luckily, that situation has stabilized in recent months after the children and their parents received counseling and other support along with regular monitoring from Children Services. Two of the three children have returned to their original family.
Rose was involved with raising the children for several years, which was pretty much a full-time job. That meant taking the kids to school, therapy and medical appointments, and everything else involved with raising young children. Rose said she’s learned a lot about raising children despite already having raised her own.
“We use our kitchen table as a bitch session,” she said, laughing. “I know a lot of people don’t eat at a table anymore but I think it’s important that you eat as a group somewhere… and for the kids to be able to say whatever they want and not get in trouble.”
Rose reminded grandparents who might be in similar situations to “be patient,” especially when raising children who have seen abuse or neglect.
“You can’t discipline them the same way; there’s no time-out chair,” she said. “…The most important thing is being able to talk, and explain, don’t just say, ‘no, you can’t do that’ (and not explain why).”