Like many grandparents in New Hampshire, Diane Yeo is starting her life over at age 57.
In 2015, Yeo drove three hours to Falmouth, Mass., to pick up her grandchildren after their mother told Yeo that she needed a fix.
The children’s mother, Yeo’s daughter-in-law, was in the throes of an opioid addiction, but it was up to Yeo to provide a home for them.
With her son in prison, Yeo went to the New Hampshire Family Court and filed a motion to obtain guardianship of the children. She received temporary guardianship and was instructed to return to court in a month.
Despite her willingness to take in her grandchildren in crisis, Yeo felt under attack in court, where she faced her daughter-in-law, her family and their attorney.
“I was nobody’s favorite, and the judge continued to give me guardianship,” Yeo said. “The onus was on me to prove she was an unfit mother instead of seeing the facts about the drugs. The court was not open about resources for the children — I almost felt I was the criminal.”
In New Hampshire, where more than 10,000 grandparents are guardians to their grandchildren, she is far from alone. Children enter the child welfare system for many reasons, but an increase of children entering the system in New Hampshire stemming from the opioid crisis has left many relatives, particularly grandparents, to care for them.
But even as grandparents have stepped up to care for these children, they often struggle to receive legal standing and support. A recent law passed in New Hampshire aims to give greater support to grandparents during the opioid crisis, an approach that other states will watch closely as the epidemic continues to unfold.
The Granite State ranks second in the nation, behind West Virginia, in the number of opioid-related deaths relative to its population. Amidst an epidemic that may still be expanding, grandparents have emerged as frequent caregivers for children whose parents are struggling with opioid addiction.
In many situations, grandparents have stepped in to care for children if they have concerns about their safety, even before a child welfare agency becomes involved.
“Grandparents often know before anyone else knows if their child is a drug user,” said MaryLou Beaver, former New Hampshire and Maine director for the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Every Child Matters. “The opioid crisis focus is placed on addicts and their treatment, with not much placed on the human toll, the children, relatives, grandparents. We don’t have programs, resources, services for them.”
In June, New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu signed House Bill 629 into law. The bill gives legal preference to grandparents — over other family members or nonfamily members — in guardianship cases where substance abuse is involved.
“The child, who is at the heart of it, always pays the biggest price,” said New Hampshire Representative Mariellen J. MacKay, who sponsored the bill. “This bill keeps the child within their own community, within the world they know.”
New Hampshire is the first state in the nation to pass a law giving preference to assisting grandparents caring for children in cases involving substance abuse.
The new law passes the burden of establishing proof of fitness for guardianship from the grandparents to the biological parents. Additionally, for grandparents who have already received guardianship, the burden of proof to terminate that guardianship will rely on the preponderance of evidence from a challenging party, and not from the grandparent guardian.
The other main component of the legislation focuses on resource availability. Under the bill, the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) is required to make certain benefit eligibility information available on the department’s website and to grandparents seeking guardianship.
While HB 629 provides better legal standing for a grandparent in some guardianship cases, it does not alter or waive licensing requirements for grandparents seeking to become foster or adoptive parents, which advocates suggest might come up in future legislation.
New Hampshire will also convene a commission to study grandfamilies in the state later this year and address the barriers that many face in becoming a formal part of the foster care system.
Other states might be looking to follow New Hampshire’s model. MacKay said she is meeting with Ohio legislators later this month to see how a policy similar to HB 629 could be adopted in Ohio.
The new law will not solve all of the issues facing grandparents who become guardians, though. Like Yeo, many grandparents are led into guardianship cases without a lot of support from the court.
“Unfortunately, what also often happens is that they are not given the information they need about resources and support that they could qualify for, or about the benefits/access that could be made available to them either as a foster parent, guardian, or caretaker,” said Jaia Lent of Generations United, a nonprofit that supports grandparent caregivers.
Resources like healthcare for children, support groups and financial assistance are all crucial for guardian grandparents, but they often are difficult to access.
At Every Child Matters, Beaver kept receiving calls from grandparents, who were suddenly guardians, looking for resources.
“Where can we get assistance?” they asked, according to Beaver.
“The issues they were facing and the obstacles were astounding,” Beaver said.
During the time of her guardianship of her grandchildren, Yeo had to go to court every three months to maintain this legal role, using her retirement funds to pay for an attorney. The state gave Yeo $600 a month to assist with the cost of caring for her two grandchildren. Because of her caregiving responsibilities, Yeo had to take time off from her job as a telehealth practitioner at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“The dynamics of the emotions, financial issues, the lack of assistance and direction form anyone, it was very hard,” Yeo said. “In continuing the best interests of the children there was no one to steer me. I was doing things blindly.”
Now, Yeo no longer has guardianship of her two grandchildren.
She said that eventually her my daughter-in-law got help. And her son is now out of prison and receiving help for his own drug addiction issues. The children are doing well, but Yeo is still hypervigilant about their safety and well-being.
Yeo is now striving to stabilize herself after supporting her two grandchildren. She had to resign from her job at the Department of Veterans Affairs and moved into a rented apartment after the end of her last relationship.
“Here I am 57 years old, and I’m on my own,” Yeo said. “All the things I was building for myself, I’m now starting over.”