A visit to grandma’s house should be special.
“You can spoil them and then send them back,” explains Grandma Winnie Dao from Enfield.
But for her, it’s a lot more complicated than that.
“They do ask questions like ‘Why am I not living with mom and dad? Why am I here? You’re supposed to be the fun grandmother, not the mean one,’ Winnie says with a chuckle.
Winnie finds herself doing it all. She’s tasked with raising her son’s two children. Angelina is 5 and Shaquil Jr. just turned 1.
“It’s very tiring. Monday through Friday, I work full time,” says Winnie. “I get up at 5 o’clock, and I don’t go to bed probably until 10:30.”
Angelina moved in with her when the state removed her from her parents’ home four and a half years ago. Her father, Winnie’s son, became addicted to drugs after taking prescription painkillers following a serious car accident.
Last year, Winnie took in her grandson, too. Their father’s battle with drugs wasn’t getting any better. In fact, less than a month later, he died after taking fentanyl-laced marijuana.
“Sometimes I get so angry,” Winnie says holding back tears. “I don’t understand why things happen the way they do, I have no idea. What scares me the most is probably if anything happens to me, what’s going to happen to them?”
Winnie is not alone. There are nearly 19,000 other grandparents across the state raising their grandchildren.
“The numbers have just increased drastically nationwide, and especially here in Connecticut,” says Yolanda Ortiz. Yolanda manages a program with the Hartford Community Renewal Team that supports families like Winnie’s.
Yolanda says the biggest hurdle the grandparents face is financial.
“If you’re a grandmother and you have custody of one grandchild and you’re not a licensed foster parent, you’re getting about less than $400 a month from the state of Connecticut, along with maybe some food stamps,” Yolanda explains.
Yolanda oversees 24 subsidized apartments in Hartford for grandparents who suddenly find themselves in this very situation.
“The waiting lists are very, very long. We have people who call every day asking if there is an opening,” she says.
And although exacerbated by the opioid crisis over the last few years, this is nothing new.
“This issue’s been around for a long time, it’s just a different issue and with different people,” says Hartford grandmother Barbara Turner.
Barbara turner has raised 7 grandchildren, three of who still live with her. The oldest is 26. Their mother died almost 3 years ago.
“It’s a lot. It comes with a lot. And you don’t know the depth of it until you’re in it,” says Barbara, “It’s a lot of sacrifice.”
Despite her single-income and all the other challenges that come with raising seven children, when asked what gets her through the tough times, Barbara doesn’t hesitate to answer, “My grandchildren.”
“Looking at them and having a desire to want better for them gets me through,” says Barbara. “Did I picture my life like this? Oh no! Not at all. Would I do it again? Yeah, I would.”
The grandmothers we talked to both said they shared their story with us in hopes of raising awareness and expanding affordable or free programs for other grandparents in their situation. They both found groups and resources in their communities that they say helped them realize they’re not alone.
For more information on support groups and programs in your area, click here.