Natalie Hoprich remembers the call that changed her life.
Hoprich had one hour to get home, a worker from Luzerne County Children and Youth Services told her, or else her two grandsons would enter foster care.
Instead of preparing to retire, Hoprich and her husband, Steve, became caretakers of 4- and 6-year-old boys.
When the boys arrived six years ago, the Hopriches didn’t even have beds for them. It had been years since they helped with homework or went to work after staying up all night nursing a sick child.
“We weren’t used to that,” Hoprich said.
Instead of saving money for a new roof on their home in Sweet Valley, Ross Twp., and their retirement fund, they spent $8,000 one year on daycare and hired lawyers. Seeking permanent custody and, later, adopting their boys, they had to learn laws and procedures of family court and social agencies — often without help.
“There were a lot of resources out there that I know about now that I didn’t in the first couple of years,” said Hoprich, adding: “I only know about that through Joan and her group.”
Joan is Joan Gower whose support group, New American Heroes, helps the Hopriches and other grandparents who raise grandchildren in Luzerne County.
At meetings on the second Monday of each month in the Jewish Community Center in Kingston, grandparents who recently have started raising grandchildren can talk about their fears and frustrations.
Members like Hoprich and Gower who have been attending longer advise them and remind them that they’re not alone.
Gower didn’t raise any of her five grandchildren, but as a retired family services worker she understands the range of issues faced by grandparents who do.
Some grandparents are in their 40s and are caring for aging parents as they take custody of grandchildren, Gower said. Others as old as their 80s and have health issues of their own.
When grandparents remarry, spouses often play key roles in raising grandchildren who aren’t blood relatives.
All grandparents who raise grandchildren incur unexpected expenses, from paying for diapers and daycare to college tuition.
Scheduling conflicts can lead them to lose or change jobs so they can be available to care for grandchildren.
Grandparents raising grandchildren isn’t new. A coalition of groups started an annual conference for them in Luzerne County 16 years ago, according to Howard Grossman, who continues to oversee the conference and heads a support group for grandparents in Pittston.
Gower’s group originated 13 years ago at Catholic Social Services but took the name New American Heroes four years ago.
Compared to 2018 when about 82,000 grandparents raised grandchildren in Pennsylvania, about 95,000 grandparents now care for an estimated 202,000 grandchildren.
“There’s way more of them because of the drug problem,” Gower said.
Domestic violence also leads Children and Youth Services to turn to grandparents because the social workers can’t find anyone else to become foster parents.
“Part of the reason: the trauma these children suffered and the behaviors that come with it,” Gower said.
After becoming temporary custodians, grandparents might have to relinquish children to the parents who harmed them unless they go to court for permanent custody or adoption.
“Grandparents in many cases have to shun their own children for the safety of their grandchild. It’s horrific, gut-wrenching,” Gower said.
Hoprich said she and her husband gained permanent custody two months after the boys came into their home.
“Mom and dad were completely out of the picture for a few years. That’s when we adopted them,” Hoprich said.
After adopting the boys, grandmother and grandfather Hoprich became parents and insulated from court challenges.
Other grandparents who have custody but haven’t adopted grandchildren worry constantly they might have to return to court with parents, including those who had problems with drugs or violence.
Gower said Children and Youth Services considers cases closed when grandparents have permanent legal custodianship. But that allows parents to ask the courts every six months for changes in visitation schedules or to retake custody from grandparents.
Some grandparents, therefore, believe adoption is the only solution to keep their grandchildren’s home lives stable. But Gower said adoption isn’t possible in every case and some grandparents don’t want to force parents to give up rights to their children.
One Luzerne County grandmother, who has full physical custody of her grandchildren, said her daughter, the children’s mother, is dead, but their father can file in court every six months for new visitation or custodial rights.
“You’re exhausted from it,” said the grandmother who didn’t want her name published.
She thinks laws and Children and Youth Services should bend toward the wishes of children and grandparents in custody hearings and away from parents who have abused drugs or have violent histories.
Grandparents who rise to the challenge of raising grandchildren, she said, shouldn’t have to pay for legal bills in custody maters.
Both the grandmother who didn’t want her name published and the Hopriches received money from an advocacy fund that Gower’s support group established.
The fund began five years ago when Brenda Saba won $25,000 from the Luzerne Foundation for a video that she made about her and her husband, Steven, raising their grandson.
The fund pays up to $3,000 per child. Grandparents only can apply for funds if they live in Luzerne County, aren’t currently involved with Children and Youth Services and if they seek to adopt or take custody for the first time of a child already placed with them.
Fundraising events help replenish the advocacy fund, which is unique in the state.
State Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski, D-121, Wilkes-Barre, supports a bill that would provide legal assistance for grandparents in other counties across the state. The bill allocates $1.5 million that nonprofit organizations would distribute in three years, Pashinski said.
Five years ago, he backed a law that gives temporary guardianship for a year to grandparents so they have authority to register children for school or take them for medical treatment.
He also supported a bill with Rep. Kathy Watson, then-chair of the Children and Youth Committee, that created KinConnector to provide grandparents with information about raising grandchildren and referrals to support groups, including New American Heroes.
“Grandparents had no place to go. Now at least they have a phone and website connection,” Pashinski said.
He also wants to expand payments for foster care, for which grandparents raising grandchildren don’t always qualify.
“I’m trying to take it one step at a time,” Pashinski said.
Five years ago the Children and Youth Committee of the state House heard estimates that grandparents raising grandchildren saved the state $1 billion or more annually on foster care costs.
Grandparents generally are eligible for subsidies if their county’s Children and Youth Services office oversees custody of the grandchildren.
“Many grandparents either do not want CYS involvement or the children do not need CYS involvement,” Haven Evans, program director for Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance in Harrisburg, said in an email. “For these cases, they do not receive this financial assistance that foster parents receive.”
Colleen Yechimowicz and her husband, Martin, of Hunlock Creek received a stipend some time after they started raising their two granddaughters.
Money came through their Subsidized Permanent Legal Custodianship. When the Yechimowiczes took custody of their granddaughters, one of whom was 6 months old, they received financial help for day care. The assistance for day care ended with the custodianship so the stipend basically paid for day care, said Yechimowicz, adding that the subsidies haven’t been adjusted for inflation in 20 years.
Yechimowicz also said she and her husband had been told by case workers that the state would pay for the granddaughters’ college educations.
When their oldest granddaughter turned 16, however, the grandparents found out she wasn’t covered for college costs.
“We had a little saved, but not enough to cover college,” Yechimowicz said. She and her husband took out loans to pay for the six-year doctoral program in which their granddaughter, now 19, enrolled. They expect their youngest granddaughter, who is 12 and an honor student, will want to go to college.
“I think it would behoove the state to provide educational funds to get them out of this system. It seems to be a circle,” said Yechimowicz, whose daughter, the girls’ mother, is in a nursing home.
From attending Gower’s group, Yechimowicz learned about therapy services that are available for her family.
To get some assistance through other agencies such as Pennsylvania Area Agency on Aging or Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network or victims resource centers, grandparents have to meet income qualifications.
Hoprich said her family received money for extra activities through SWAN, the Statewide Adoption and Permanency Network. Her grandchildren learned to ride horses and attended summer camp with help from SWAN.
A long road
At the November meeting of New American Heroes, Hoprich saw something of her former self in the eyes of a new member group of whom Hoprich said:
“She is devastated, doesn’t know where to turn, afraid the parent is going to get the child back and is not safe.”
Later Gower said she had seen the same look in Hoprich’s eyes six years before when Hoprich became a foster grandparent.
“The worst part about this is the fear,” Hoprich said, “that once you have the child and know they’re safe and thriving that that parent they were taken from will get them back. And it does happen.”
Hoprich said it took about a year for her, her husband and their two grandsons to adjust to living together.
“By the end of the year, I don’t think you could have taken us apart. We became our own little family,” she said.
She said helping the boys, now 10 and 13, with homework can be fun.
“The little trivia you might have heard on ‘Jeopardy’ the last 30 to 40 years are coming back again,” although she lets her husband, an engineer, teach the new style of long division to their oldest grandson.
Her husband turned 70 and retired in September.
Hoprich, 64, plans to work another year. She lost one job while staying home for two weeks while the boys were in quarantine for COVID-19 and now works weekends.
And they have help raising the boys.
Their daughter, sober for the last three years, moved in with them a year ago — an outcome that Hoprich said is very rare among the grandparents she knows who raise grandchildren.
“They’re our kids,” Hoprich said as the adoptive mother, “but their mom, she’s their parent, too. In the past year we’ve never had an argument or disagreement over how they’re raised.
“It’s been a long road, but we’re in a good place.”
From The Standard-Speaker, December 4, 2023