August 18. 2018 6:45PM

Dave Solomon's State House Dome: Grandparents are unsung heroes of opioid crisis

By DAVE SOLOMON


It's starting to look like 2019 could be the year the Legislature starts to pay more attention to so-called "grandfamilies," as more grandparents take custody of their grandchildren, but often with none of the support systems or financial assistance that exist for conventional foster families.

Two bills were passed in the past legislative session to support grandfamilies, with more likely in the year ahead.

HB 629 granted standing in all court proceedings to grandparents who have guardianship rights as a result of a parent's substance abuse, while SB 148 established the Commission to Study Grandfamilies in New Hampshire.

The commission is due to issue its final report by Sept. 1. The preliminary report, still subject to a final vote, estimates that more than 12,000 New Hampshire grandparents are raising their grandchildren or great-grandchildren, many through an informal agreement with the grandchild's parents.

What's becoming more obvious through the work of the commission and others is that the unsung heroes of the opioid epidemic are grandparents, who are stepping up in record numbers.

In June, the Carsey School of Public Policy at UNH published some research with the title, "Parental Substance Abuse: Who Cares for the Children?"

The commission's draft recommendations make clear that these grandfamilies are doing a great service to the state, but it's often a one-way street.

"You want to make it easier for people down the road so there is a general understanding of what benefits and rights these grandparents have for raising these children and taking the burden off the state, because that's what they are doing," says commission member Diane Yeo, who went from being an empty nester to suddenly bringing kindergartners and first-graders to school.

"There is a huge emotional component to this as well," she told her fellow commission members as they reviewed the draft report on Friday. "They are not only dealing with the substance abuse of their children, but as a family they want to take care of their grandchildren and will do anything to accommodate those children, even if it means sacrificing their needs, which is pretty much the case."

The draft points out that licensed foster parents often have access to a wide range of services that are not available to unlicensed grandfamilies. They range from case management and mental health services to in-home supports and training, as well as benefits to cover costs of clothing, supplies and day care.

The commission is likely to recommend a bill that would allow grandparents to qualify for the state's child care assistance program, and another to increase access to trauma training and mental health services.

Another proposed recommendation would ensure that grandfamilies who are not licensed as foster parents can still qualify for state assistance for child care, housing and employment.

The draft also calls on lawmakers to consider legislation that would decrease the age at which a minor can acquire legal standing in his or her own custody case. That age is now 14, but some members of the commission feel children as young as 11 or 12 should have an opportunity to express their preference.

Creating a whole new class of households eligible for federal and state benefits associated with foster care is a costly proposition, but one the Legislature will have to grapple with in fighting an intractable opioid epidemic.

Check is in the mail

This week and next will bring welcome mail to some retired state employees as the New Hampshire Retirement System begins issuing a $500 one-time payment lawmakers approved during the 2018 legislative session.

These checks will be issued to retirees with at least 20 years of service, who have been retired for at least five years, and whose current benefit does not exceed $30,000.

A coalition of state employee unions had fought for a one-time $500 payment and a cost-of-living adjustment of 1.5 percent for all retirees.

"It was a momentous occasion for the New Hampshire Legislature to finally recognize, after 10 long years, that its retirees were well overdue for some type of cost-of-living adjustment," a statement put out by the coalition said.