Virginia Tech faculty member Megan Dolbin-MacNab testified before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging in Washington, D.C., on March 21 on the impact of the opioid addiction epidemic on grandparents raising their grandchildren.

Dolbin-MacNab, an associate professor in human development in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, outlined the challenges faced by the country’s 2.6 million grandparents who have primary responsibility for rearing their grandchildren in “skipped-generation” households — those in which the parents are not present.

During the session “Grandparents to the Rescue: Raising Grandchildren in the Opioid Crisis and Beyond,” Dolbin-MacNab presented research on how raising grandchildren affects grandparents’ lives and well-being.

In the U.S., substance abuse is one of the most common reasons for grandparents to assume the childrearing role.

“We’ve all seen the tragic news stories about the impact of opioid addiction on families,” says Dolbin-MacNab. “This hearing highlights how the opioid crisis is forcing many grandparents to step in because parents can no longer provide care. These grandparents represent real safety nets for their grandchildren and families.”

Dolbin-MacNab said the academic perspective she’ll be providing the Special Committee on Aging has its roots in studies that began in the mid-1990s, when the crack cocaine epidemic created a similar crisis.

Based on U.S. Census data, she notes that grandparents raising grandchildren crosses all income levels, all geographic areas, and all racial and ethnic groups. Often the caregiving arrangement is long-term, with nearly half of the grandparents caring for their grandchildren for at least five years.

Although some grandparents do raise their grandchildren within the child welfare system, many provide care for the children outside the system or informally, which may severely limit their access to supportive services. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation Kids Count Data Center, grandparents play this key role in the lives of 2.5 million children, or 3 percent of all U.S. children.

Generations United, a national nonprofit group, has estimated that grandparents and other relatives who are raising children informally save taxpayers $4 billion each year.

The costs to the grandparents are more than just financial. They face tremendous stressors as well as barriers to accessing services. If they don’t have official custody, for example, they may have difficulty enrolling their grandchildren in school or getting them access to health care.

“I’m so grateful for this opportunity to present the research on grandfamilies to policy makers on a national level,” says Dolbin-MacNab. “My hope is that the information presented at the hearing can be used to inform legislation that will help provide these families with the support they need.”

Dolbin-MacNab does point to a glimmer of hope in all the adversity.

“Not all the news is bad,” Dolbin-MacNab said. “Grandparents raising grandchildren in the face of an addiction crisis is tragic. But it’s also a story about tremendous resilience and love for family and future generations.”