Collateral Damage of the Opioid Crisis

Grandparents Raising Grandchildren—What They Need and How to Help

Research Brief | December 12, 2018 | Christine Stanik, PhD

A grandmother sits with her grandson in a hammock at sunset


The opioid crisis has resulted in a dramatic uptick in the number of children being removed from the custody of their parents. Many of these children end up in the care of relatives. Currently around 7.8 million children reside in grandparent-led households. While evidence-based treatment for substance use disorder is capturing national attention, less focus has been given to the many families grappling with the collateral damage of their loved one’s struggle with addiction. This has begun to change with the passage of the bipartisan “Supporting Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Act” in July.

To better inform future policies aimed at providing services and support to grandparents raising grandchildren, Altarum funded data collection about grandfamilies both in Michigan and nationally. Led by social psychologist Christine Stanik, PhD, the resulting report focuses on grandparents raising grandchildren—identifying their perceived needs and barriers to obtaining services, exploring the possible burden of the opioid crisis in this population, and offering recommendations to support and improve outcomes for underserved grandfamilies.


Primary data collection began during the summer of 2018. The first phase of this study sought to shed light on the lived experience of grandfamilies though in-depth interviews with 20 grandmothers living across the state of Michigan. The second phase explored emerging themes from the interviews with a broader sample through an online survey of 1,015 grandparents raising grandchildren nationwide.

Key findings

  • Grandfamilies deal with complex mental and behavioral health needs of children who have experienced severe psychological and physical trauma.
  • Grandparents must cope with their own grief and emotional distress while parenting grandchildren with complex emotional needs.
  • Raising a second family places grandparents in a financially perilous situation and contributes to the number of children and elderly living in poverty.
  • The road to custody is complicated. Grandparents are ill-prepared to deal with the legal system.
  • The foster care system, as it currently exists, may not be the best option to meet grandparents’ needs.
  • Grandparents subvert their own needs to provide support for their grandchildren.
  • Grandparent peer groups are an important source of knowledge and strength.


  • Sort out the provision of subsidies to connect grandparents with existing resources.
  • Enhance the foster care system to better serve kinship caregivers.
  • Develop and implement continuing education and mental health interventions at health system points of contact for both grandparents and grandchildren.
  • Clarify legal rights to help grandparents navigate the family court system.
  • Develop and implement peer support trainings and peer-led programs to meet the unique challenges of grandfamilies.

Read the full report.

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