“I remember the very first grandmother I worked with,” says Bobbie London, MEd., LMFT, a Social Worker at South Shore Stars. “Her son was using drugs and her grandchild found the drug paraphernalia. The grandmother said, ‘I couldn’t tell on my own son, so I told my grandchild to tell his teacher, and he did and then everything went into motion.’”
For nearly 50 years, South Shore Stars, a partner agency of United Way, has several high-quality programs working with children and their families in Quincy, Randolph, and Weymouth. The organization also runs a group that works with relatives who raise a child/children of a loved one with a substance abuse disorder and/or mental health issue who can no longer parent them. This group is appropriately coined, the Kinship Group.
The kinship group, run by Bobbie, has expanded over the past year. The opioid crisis has impacted the numbers greatly. The group has more than 35 members – about 50 percent are aunts and uncles, and the other half are grandparents. These strong and resilient families have made a decision to rise up and raise their relatives.
Bobbie says the support group is not a therapy group, but it’s therapeutic. The families that attend the group are of different cultures, generations, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Yet, they share almost identical stories of substance abuse disorders, mental illness, death, and heartbreak, which create a special bond between them in the safety of the group’s judgement-free zone.
“People are often embarrassed and ashamed of their situation, so they don’t talk about it. But in the group, having a similar story with someone else removes that shame and guilt, and it helps them come to terms with what’s going on in their own family,” says Bobbie. “Almost always someone has the same story as another family – and that’s what makes it so wonderful.”
Holistic Family Approach
The Kinship Group works with both relatives/caregivers and children. Often, kids will refer to their grandmother or aunt as their mom because they don’t want to stand out among peers. When they realize that other kids in the group are in similar situations, it’s a huge relief and the fear of being stigmatized is lifted.
Bobbie says that the Kinship Group helps both kids and caregivers adjust to their individual situation. Frequently, grandparents don’t even know that they have a grandchild, especially if they haven’t spoken with their own child in a long time.
“As for the kids,” says Bobbie, “they’re usually not coming from the safest housing situation, there’s no schedule, lots of fast food and soda, and no one really knows day from night. They don’t realize they’re supposed to take a bath, brush their teeth, get tucked in, or sit in a car seat. They’re not socialized and they have no frame of reference for what they’re doing.” Often, South Shore Stars helps bridge that transition.
Dealing with Loss
The number of opioid-related deaths (including heroin, opioid‐based prescription painkillers, and other unspecified opioids) have declined in 2017 by 8.4%, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, the first decrease in the state in nearly a decade.
“Over the last several years, three of our mothers have passed away from heroin overdoses,” says Bobbie. “All three got sober. They went to jail, then got out of jail, relapsed, and overdosed. It’s an awfully dark disease.”
Staying sober takes a lot of work. Bobbie says people end up chasing that first high forever and ever. “It’s also hard for kinship caregivers – grandparents, great grandparents, aunts, uncles, great aunts and uncles – who know what’s going on, but they don’t have the strength to police it.”
“You don’t want to love your kid less,” says Bobbie, “but at a certain point you might have to be forced to choose between the adult and their child, who is pretty innocent in the whole picture.”
For more information about the impact of opioids in Massachusetts read: