Lawmakers told ‘pay now or pay later’ to support growing number of grandfamilies

Editor’s Note: This story was revised on Jan. 10, 2020 to take out percentages initially reported to lawmakers, specifically an unusually high rate of Logan County students said to be living in homes without parents, due to issues with sourcing for the numbers.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A growing number of West Virginia’s kids are not being raised by their parents, according to Bonnie Dunn, project director of West Virginia’s Healthy Grandfamilies Program based at West Virginia State University.

Those students are either in the care of their grandparents or someone else other than their mothers and fathers, Dunn said, largely due to parental substance abuse.

“We find ourselves in this state in a crisis. We’re in an epidemic. This has creeped up on us,” Dunn said.

“Over the past 50 years, it had gradually been the scale was going up, up, up and then, all of the sudden, one day we wake up and here we are with this new family type, this new household type — a grandparent head of household.”

Bonnie Dunn

On Tuesday, she talked about the Healthy Grandfamilies Program created to support those family units during a presentation at the State Capitol in front members of the Legislature’s Select Committee on PEIA, Seniors and Long-Term Care.

At the time, there was no quorum of lawmakers because of snowy weather in Charleston on the last day of interim meetings before the start of the 2020 Regular Legislative Session at 12 p.m. Wednesday.

West Virginia is currently tied with Mississippi at No. 2 in the U.S. for numbers of grandparents raising grandchildren behind only Arkansas.

Nationwide, Dunn estimated 2.5 million grandparents are responsible for their grandchildren.

“These grandparents are doing society a favor, of such, by taking care of these children and trying to keep them out of the foster care system,” Dunn said.

She estimated grandfamilies have saved $4 billion each year in U.S. foster care costs.

For every one child in foster care, Dunn said at least 25 other children were being raised by grandparents.

She asked lawmakers Tuesday, “Are you prepared to take on this daunting task?”

In the current state budget, $300,000 has been allocated for the expansion of training programs through Healthy Grandfamilies which has already been implemented and is growing in West Virginia’s 55 counties as part of a statewide network.

Over at least eight weeks, free training is provided on topics like available resources, parenting in the 21st Century, communication, nutrition, self-care and navigating the school system and legal system.

Meals and child care are provided during workshops in local communities.

After the coursework is completed, there are three months of follow-up services.

Participants have ranged in ages from 39 to 82.

Among them, “They thought they were isolated and they were isolated because shame, all the different things that come with ‘my child’s in an addiction and now I’m raising their children,’ they did not really want to come out in the forefront,” Dunn said.

“But what we found is that this problem is no respecter of persons.”

The West Virginia Healthy Grandfamilies Program has already been replicated in Kentucky.

“I’m telling you, it works,” Dunn said of the intervention model.

A past home economics teacher who was raised by her grandparents, Dunn argued that it needed to continue to grow.

“I think we need to think about this on a personal level because I don’t believe any of us could ever been exempt. We pray, we hope that our children never find themselves in this position, but you never know,” Dunn said.

She told lawmakers more work was needed to support grandfamilies.

One future project included the development of a center for healthy grandfamilies.

“I know we’re living in a day and time, folks, when there are millions of needs and I know the Legislature gets hit with a lot of requests, but this is truly a situation of pay now or pay later,” Dunn said.

“I don’t what to think about what the ‘pay later’ might be.”

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