As overdose death tolls continue to rise, another American tragedy is unfolding: Drug-orphans rescued by grandparents.
Columbus, Ohio—It was a cold January Monday morning. Scott Stoddard had been at work about two hours, since 4 a.m. He finished loading his bread truck and was about to leave on his delivery route when he got the call that every parent fears, the call that forever changed his life, and so many others.
It was a call from his son—or so he thought. It was from his son’s number.
“It was his girlfriend,” he recalled. “She was hysterical. She said ‘Rob’s gone.’ I said, ‘What do you mean he’s gone?’
“She said, ‘He overdosed.’
“I didn’t even cry,” Stoddard recalls. He stood in the parking lot in silence, not quite connecting the dots—until he did.
“You’re a dad. The wheels start spinning. I knew my wife was on her way to work. I’m thinking, ‘I gotta catch her before she gets to work, I can’t let her get to work and tell her there,’” he said, recalling the thoughts that flooded his mind.
“I don’t want to tell her over the phone, but I can’t walk into her job and tell her there either.” He went in to tell his boss that he couldn’t run the route and went outside to set up the truck for a replacement driver.
“And that’s when I lost it. I called my wife. … I told her. We were both bawling.”
They met at their son’s apartment and waited outside. “The detectives were still inside, my wife and I were hugging each other outside,” huddled together on that cold Ohio morning. A policeman came out, and Scott started walking across the parking lot.
“Then he said, ‘You’re dad?’ And I said, ‘Yes sir,’” Scott recalled. “He said, ‘I’m sorry for your loss.’
“And as soon as he said that, my knees buckled, my stomach turned, my heart went up in my throat, and that made it official.” Their 32-year-old son was dead.
It was also the moment that Scott, 55, and Judy, 57, grandparents to then 10- and 13-year-old boys, and just a few years away from the retirement they had planned for, became full-time parents again.
It is one more stark image of the collateral damage caused by the opioid crisis.
Where Do the Children Go?
As the opioid epidemic has spread across the country, through all age, gender, race and economic categories, the number of children who have lost their parents to drugs—either to death by overdose, to jail, prison, homelessness or disability—has skyrocketed. Those children wind up in two places: Either with relatives, or in an already overburdened foster care system, which saw a three-year national increase of more than 30,000 children entering foster care in 2015.
In the process, they have rewritten retirement plans for millions of Americans. And in many cases, it’s turned grandma and grandpa into mom and dad, again.
Generations United, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group for intergenerational families, released a study last year estimating that 2.6 million American children are being raised by grandparents or other relatives—roughly 3.5 percent of all children in the U.S. The study also shows that 30 percent of children in foster care are being raised by relatives, up from 24 percent 10 years ago.
In Ohio, the number of children placed with relatives or foster homes has increased 62 percent since 2010. In neighboring West Virginia, the hardest hit state in the opioid crisis, the number of foster care children grew 24 percent from 2012-2016 alone, according to the state’s Department of Health and Human Services.
“For every child in foster care with relatives,” the Generations United study says, “there are 20 children being raised by grandparents or other relatives outside the foster care system.”
The numbers escalate as the number of overdoses increase; they mirror the number of addicts in treatment programs, incarceration or living day-to-day on the streets. Babies born addicted to opioids or other drugs also fall under foster or family care.
In most cases, not only are relatives faced with starting over, trying to build a stable home and family life for the children, they’re often doing it with little support. More often than not, addict parents, living or deceased, have made little or no provisions for ongoing care of their children.
One family, one story
The Stoddard’s story is a template for many others. Some families come to the rescue on a similar path, and for many, starting over doesn’t precisely describe their experience. In Scott and Judy’s case, the boys had lived with them on and off as Rob battled addiction over 15 years. Beginning at age 17, Rob had twice been in prison “for doing things that drug addicts have to do to fuel their addiction,” Scott said. They learned the hopelessness of watching his recidivism.
“Both times he came out he was good for over a year. But I could see it coming. He would have a drink or shoot pool and have a couple of drinks with somebody,” Scott said. “A couple of drinks for Rob [meant] he would drink for a few weeks. It would lead to ‘I smoked, and I drank.’ And he would use something. … And it always led back to heroin, or pills and heroin.
“The boys’ mother,” Scott said, “also had drug problems.” She was out of the picture shortly after their son Aiden was born prematurely. “She was done dealing with a preemie,” Scott said. “It’s not easy. She left for Oregon.”
Aiden, now 12, and his brother Gaige, now 15, have only distant memories of her. Robbie remarried. “My son was doing well for a short span,” Scott said. “He met a great girl; they got married and had a girl. Unfortunately, she was born with a brain tumor.”
The girl, Scarlett, would die when she was 2 1/2.
Shortly after her death Robbie began using again and his second marriage broke up. “He just had a dark side he could not fix,” Scott said. Robbie’s second wife still sees her stepsons about once a month, he said, but for all purposes, he and Judy are mom and dad again.
“Gaige just a couple of years ago started realizing his life is different than everybody else’s,” Scott said. “He started to realize that not everybody lives with their grandparents. As normal as his life was, it’s not normal.”
In meeting with the boys’ teachers, Scott said he has told them not to “tip toe” around circumstances of Rob’s death. “They know about their dad. … They knew when he was in prison, what he was in there for, they know why he passed. They knew his demons,” he said. “We had serious talks about it; we still have serious talks about it. He’s still here with us.”
Gaige wears a watch Rob had on the day he died. The boys also wear “Stop Heroin” and “Stop Drug Abuse” wristbands to school. “And if kids ask them about [the wristbands], they’re honest,” Scott said.
“We’re very honest, we’re very open. And in a good way, we’re a very sarcastic family,” he chuckled. “My son’s ashes are at the house. Aiden, he put an Ohio State cap on top of the ashes, and said ‘Dad would have wanted the cap.’”
They didn’t have a traditional funeral for Rob, he said, “because Robbie would have never wanted to sit through a funeral, with all his friends wearing clothes they never wear, and I know he would have tried to slide out the side door.”
So instead, a restaurant that’s on Scott’s bread route, where Rob had once worked, offered the space. “Rob could always talk his way into a job. He always wound up being the lead in a kitchen, and he’d make better money,” Scott said. “Unfortunately, the worst thing for an addict is more money.
“We used it as a gathering, friends and family, a lot of people came,” he recalled. “A lot of addicts die alone, but we had well over 200 people,” Scott said. He spoke honestly there too.
“A lot of you knew Rob, and he might have screwed you over once or twice,” he recalls saying. “But they still came,” he said, “because when he was right, he was really good. But yeah, when he was bad, he was really bad.”
A Normal Life?
For all of the normalcy Scott tries to portray, he knows he’s in an uncomfortable and unplanned position. “There’s no manual for this,” he said. His wife handles most of the house things, he helps. “I give her time by taking the boys. We belong to a gym. I gotta work out, I’m gonna be 62 when Aiden graduates high school,” he laughs.
He helps with homework, but admits he sometimes gets lost. “They’ll say, ‘Didn’t you learn this?’ I say, ‘Yeah, 40 years ago. And they didn’t teach it the same way.’”
The boys have also noticed that Scott pays attention to everything they do and everything they say—which sometimes annoys the teenagers. “Well you can blame your father,” he tells them. “I pay attention to everything, I watch facial expressions, body language. I pay attention way more than I’d really like to, it’s what I do now. I hear everything—whether it’s meant for me or not.
“We’re not on this planet for a really long time. It goes quicker than you think,” he said. “Blink your eyes, middle school, blink your eyes again and you’re going to be in high school, blink your eyes again and you’re going to be on your way to college.”
Gone But Not Forgotten
“My wife and I, we battled his addiction with him,” Scott said as he recalls the difficult journey with his son. He immersed himself in reading about addicts and addiction. “It helped mine and his relationship a lot. I understood better.” Scott’s voice catches. “We had a very good relationship.”
Now, Scott said he spends at least an hour a day on social media sites that have sprung up for parents of addicts whose lives are in jeopardy, and others in situations like his, older adults, sometimes seniors, raising their grandchildren, grieving the loss of their child.
“I’m not an expert. But I need to do this,” he said. “These people who are suffering, I’ll give them the name of somebody to talk to. I see a lot of parents who are tired of the struggle and they want to give up. I couldn’t imagine getting that phone call if I had given up on him.”
Even that is small comfort.
“I cry just about every day. The boys have seen me cry,” he said. “They’ve seen when I talk about their dad, the bottom lip quivers, then there’s a tear in the eyes. … They know that’s OK too. I tell the boys, … remember your dad, and learn from it.”
Scott thinks that near the end, his son was trying to get clean, and trying to get better, but it was just too hard for him. He overdosed on the night of what would have been his daughter Scarlett’s 8th birthday.
“It’s hard. I’m not gonna lie,” Scott said. “It affects me daily.”
He sighs and speaks slowly.
“When you’re a parent, … you still didn’t succeed. Regardless of how many people tell me I did everything I could for Robbie, … still, on my deathbed, my greatest regret will always be, and I know it will be, … I couldn’t fix my son.”