INDIANAPOLIS — Sixteen years ago, Jack Davidson and his wife, Louise, became guardians of their 3-year-old step-great-grandson, Jerry, who was soon afterward diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a developmental disorder on the autism spectrum.
“When we first got him, we weren’t sure what we had,” Davidson recalled. “He was hands-on 24/7. … It wasn’t something that we were quite used to.”
Jerry’s parents had struggled with addictions to drugs and alcohol, prompting Davidson to seek legal guardianship, he said.
“We asked for this,” Davidson said. “We could have said no, and (Jerry) would have gone into the system. … But we chose not to do that because (he is) family.”
Louise Davidson died 11 years ago, making her husband Jerry’s sole caretaker.
“Living on a fixed income is one thing because there’s all kinds of expenses out there. But you try to clothe a kid, feed a kid, pay for educational experiences. … It’s not cheap,” Davidson said. “It’s a different world than when I raised my kids 40, 50 years ago.”
In Indiana, as elsewhere across much of the country, the opioid epidemic and other forces have driven grandchildren into the arms of their grandparents as primary caregivers. Many face daunting bureaucracy, health problems and lack of support as they try to raise the children.
At least 60,179 grandparents in Indiana are raising grandchildren, according to an August presentation on kinship care from the Department of Child Services.
Kinship care carries an extra burden for families, especially grandparents on fixed incomes with limited support systems caring for grandchildren. The number of families has increased because of the opioid epidemic, but bureaucracy makes getting assistance difficult.
“The emotional burden that these families are carrying is a real elusive need,” said Angela Smith Grossman, assistant deputy director of field operations for DCS.
To address the emotional burden, Jack Davidson and other grandparents in Wabash County joined the local Parenting A Second Time Around (PASTA) organization.
“Before, it was a real struggle because there was nobody that knew what we were going through,” Davidson said. “We’re raising this kid and going through that at our ages.”
Davidson decided to check out the first meeting of Wabash County’s PASTA group after seeing a flyer in Sunday School, but he had reservations about getting a lecture from somebody who probably didn’t understand his family’s situation.
“We were all there for the same reason. We’re all raising grandkids or a second or even a third generation. … And all that was because of drugs and alcohol,” Davidson said. “It’s like that Vegas thing, ‘What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.’ … What we talk about in PASTA stays in PASTA.”
Four years later, Davidson still attends the group, where participants can hug, cry or yell about the parenting struggles they face.
Madeline Spring, the trained therapist who leads the group, said that establishing a place where people can freely discuss their frustrations without fear of judgment is a core part of PASTA.
“It’s that feeling like, ‘This is a safe space where I can share the good, the bad and the ugly without judgment. You can celebrate with me, but you can also grieve with me. You can also be angry with me,” Spring said.
After hearing the August report from the Department of Child Services, state Rep. Vanessa Summer passed a bill to establish a Kinship Care Oversight Committee to study the issue and make recommendations to the DCS.
“This is a great step forward to help mend some of the difficulties that come with kinship caregiving,” Summers said in a released statement. “The Kinship Care Oversight Committee will help determine the needs of this community by gathering data and forming policy recommendations that will lead to keeping more Hoosier families together and fewer children in our foster care system.”
Aside from the financial stresses that families face, DCS advocated for more support groups such as PASTA and legal assistance to navigate the difficulties of filing for guardianship.
While the state studies the issue, Davidson and tens of thousands of other Hoosier grandparents are scrambling to take care of the day-to-day needs of their grandchildren. Having PASTA as a constant support group provides a dependable safety net.
““There are others that can share all the joys, all the happiness, all the grief, all those kinds of things," Davidson said. "We’re there, and we can share.”