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All across Pennsylvania, grandparents are stepping up to provide care for their grandchildren as a result of the devastating opioid crisis or other difficult circumstances. In fact, there are currently an estimated 89,000 households statewide where older Pennsylvanians are caring for approximately 100,000 grandchildren.

We know that children who can’t be with their parents are better off both physically and emotionally when they are cared for by their grandparents or other relatives. Having grandparents serve as caregivers eliminates the need for foster care and gives children improved odds of a brighter, healthier and safer future.

Pennsylvania grandparents are currently saving the state an estimated $1 billion per year by keeping their grandchildren out of the foster care system. But many grandparents are making real sacrifices to help their families during difficult times, and they need all the help they can get. 

Fortunately, a new law passed last year addresses one of the most important issues facing grandfamilies — temporary legal guardianship. Act 88 of 2018 allows temporary guardianship in 90-day increments for up to one year to grandparents or other family members when the child’s parents are not able to care for them. Temporary guardianship gives grandparents the right to make basic decisions, such as the ability to take a child to the doctor or enroll them in school.

Grandparents can even get free legal help navigating temporary custody issues. Pennsylvania’s SeniorLAW Center works statewide and has helped many older adults resolve custody issues. You can reach the SeniorLAW HelpLine at 1-877-727-7529. Additionally, the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network (PLAN) provides civil legal assistance to low-income individuals and families. The network consists of nine regional legal aid programs that provide legal assistance to eligible clients and six specialized legal aid programs that provide legal services in specialized areas of law or to special groups of eligible clients, both available in all counties across the state.

Other assistance is available for grandparents suddenly thrust into a caregiving role. Your local Area Agency on Aging is a great resource to find help, including applying for Pennsylvania’s Caregiver Support Program. Eligible families can receive reimbursement for out-of-pocket costs, education, training, counseling and more to alleviate the stresses associated with caregiving.

AARP also offers a comprehensive online Caregiver Resource Center. You don’t need to be an AARP member to access the site, which offers free expert advice on everything from legal issues to caregiver support groups.

In addition, legislation passed last year established Pennsylvania’s Kinship Caregiver Navigator Program, an informational resource for grandparents and other family members. As a result, Pennsylvania’s departments of Aging and Human Services recently announced the launch of the KinConnector helpline, a resource for families in kinship care situations, which includes grandparents raising their grandchildren due to the opioid crisis. This helpline can assist kinship care families in accessing local, state, and federal resources, as well as connect them with families facing similar circumstances. The KinConnector helpline can be reached at 1-866-546-2111.

The good news is there is more help on the way.

After conducting a statewide grandparents raising grandchildren listening tour last year, the Pennsylvania Department of Aging formed a Grandfamilies Workgroup to build on the progress we’ve already made. This workgroup has helped raise awareness and make recommendations on issues facing grandfamilies in the areas of health and human services, legal matters like reunification and representation, education, and childcare.

In the end, it’s a big job for anyone to step in when a relative is struggling with addiction or can’t effectively parent for some other reason. Regrettably, the number of grandparents raising grandchildren in Pennsylvania is only expected to increase.

These grandparents are doing heroic work to provide the stability that children need and deserve.  AARP and Pennsylvania’s Department of Aging remain committed to identifying new ways to help grandparents provide healthy, loving, and safe care for their grandchildren.

— Robert Torres is secretary of Pennsylvania's Department of Aging, and Bill Johnston-Walsh is the director of AARP Pennsylvania.

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