Editor’s note: The families in this story agreed to speak with The Gazette only if their real names were not published.
Allie was the one who made the call to Rock County Child Protective Services, saying her daughter was unfit to care for Allie’s grandson.
It was the second—and last—time Allie’s grandson was taken from his mother, who was addicted to opioids.
Allie adopted her grandson, John, in October 2017 after having custody for two years. Allie’s daughter gave up her parental rights, and John’s father was never in the picture, she said.
Rock County has seen a “huge increase” over the last two years in the number of children placed with relatives, many of them grandparents, said Cheri Salava, substitute care supervisor.
Officials believe the opioid epidemic is one of the reasons behind the increase.
Allie said the decision to take in her grandson wasn’t easy. She had to weigh complicating her retirement years against the need to give John a stable home.
Hundreds of grandparents across Wisconsin are raising grandchildren, and the number is increasing, officials say.
The state since 2014 has been training local agencies, including Rock County, on how to reach out to more relatives before putting children into foster care, said Jonelle Brom, out-of-home care specialist with the state Department of Children and Families.
This helps maintain family relationships and allows the children to feel more comfortable, said Mary Dempsey, relative foster home licensor in Rock County.
The first step, typically, is to enroll a family in kinship care, a program that gives family members financial support to care for children before fostering or adopting the child.
Rock County had 226 children in kinship care programs as of March 29, according to data from the state Department of Children and Families.
Of those children, 37 were in court-ordered kinship care, and 189 were in voluntary kinship care, according to the data.
Families who voluntarily accept children into kinship care sometimes prevent court or law enforcement interference down the road. They keep the children in a safe environment while the parents work on themselves, said Holly Telfer, kinship care specialist.
The day Allie adopted John was a celebration, she said.
Friends and family gathered for a party, and John was happy to have some stability in his life, Allie said.
But the decision leading up to that day was difficult. Was she really ready to so drastically change her retirement years, she wondered.
Allie had hoped to retire in the next couple of years, but that might not happen now that she has another mouth to feed, she said. She gets financial assistance from the state, but it never feels like quite enough.
Allie’s daughter has moved out of the Janesville area to start fresh and has been sober for two years. John and his mother are working toward having a relationship, Allie said.
Karen has fostered her 4-year-old grandson most of his life, she said.
Karen has chosen not to adopt Jacob. She wants to keep the door open to the possibility her daughter might someday get Jacob back, she said.
Karen’s daughter has struggled with heroin addiction, and Jacob’s father is incarcerated, she said.
It will take a long time for Karen to trust her daughter again. Her daughter has been sober for one year and has regular visits with Jacob, Karen said.
But the thought of Jacob being back with his mother, even if she’s sober, scares Karen, she said.
Family relationships are strained when a relative takes in a child, said Sara Avalos, kinship care coordinator for Rock County.
Some parents grow angry with grandparents for taking away their children. Some are grateful. Other parents don’t put in any effort toward changing their lives because they assume the grandparents will take care of everything for them, Avalos said.
Karen has eight children. Some of them don’t support her decision to take in Jacob, she said.
Some of Karen’s kids thought she was throwing away her retirement years by taking him in. Some thought she was letting Jacob’s mother off easy, Karen said.
With more than 20 grandchildren, Karen has to figure out how to explain her relationship with Jacob to the others—why she spends so much time with him and not them, she said.
Karen has lost relationships with some family members over her decision, but as long as Jacob is happy and healthy, she is OK with it, she said.
“I love her (Karen’s daughter), but he is my main concern,” Karen said.
Raising a child in 2019 is “a whole new, different, scary world,” Allie said.
YouTube, computer tablets, cellphones and Fortnite weren’t around when Allie was a young mother with more energy, she said.
She struggles with how much time she should allow John to be on devices and what boundaries she should set for online content.
After having eight kids, with the youngest having just left home, Karen is accustomed to having children around the house, so taking in Jacob was not a big change, she said.
Karen decided to keep her foster license active so she can take in other children near Jacob’s age. It allows her to help others while also giving Jacob companionship, she said.
Karen will never ask Jacob to call her mom, she said.
She knows other grandmas who do, but she thinks that would hinder relationships with Jacob’s mother.
More grandparents are raising children, Karen said. She sees them at the grocery store and in the park, but she knows few personally.
Karen reaches out through private Facebook groups for grandparents raising grandchildren to talk to others about the challenges they face, she said.
Allie said one of the biggest challenges is a feeling of isolation.
Allie is raising John on her own and doesn’t know anyone raising grandchildren. She wishes the county would do a better job connecting families and offering support groups.
Allie has attended some support groups for families affected by the opioid epidemic, but they do not provide the support she craves, she said.
The state Department of Children and Families has received a federal grant to start a Kinship Navigator—a portion of its website that will compile resources for child care, health care, support groups and other resources in one space, Brom said.
The state is trying to create more resources for grandparents and foster families to bolster what Brom considers already strong foster and kinship practices.
Allie said adopting John has been challenging but mostly rewarding. She gets to cheer on her grandson and do “fun stuff” again, she said.
But Allie is dreading the approaching teen years, not knowing if she’s equipped for the challenge.
Recently, John enrolled in a charter school and has been making strides to overcome some of the special needs he has, which stem from years of trauma he was exposed to with his mother, Allie said.
Watching John overcome his challenges makes the struggle worth it, Allie said.
Veteran Michael Fitzgerald candidly expresses his pain in a collection of original poetry.
With such titles as “Wish to be Seen,” “A Soul Wasted” and “Redemption,” his poems reveal the suffering of a Marine with post-traumatic stress disorder.
But Michael and his wife, Meaghan, also a veteran, are not ones to complain.
Instead, they are reaching out to help other vets.
The Janesville couple started the fledgling Veterans First Foundation, a Wisconsin-based, nonpartisan group to help veterans who are struggling.
The Fitzgeralds want to assist vets with a long list of things, including paying utilities, maintaining their homes and providing transportation, clothing and shoes.
They also view their foundation as “a one-stop shop,” where links on their website connect visitors to vital veteran resources.
Among the resources are people who can enroll vets in health care, mental health or substance-abuse programs, and homelessness programs through the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs.
“We are not trying to replace existing programs,” Michael said. “We want to help connect veterans with the right people. When I first got out of the military, I did not realize these people existed.”
They also understand the importance of human compassion and look forward to launching the veteran reading project.
Volunteers will read to vets who have mobility or transportation issues and bring them the joy of good books and companionship.
The Fitzgeralds hope to do all this by enlisting many volunteers, nonprofit partners and community leaders who also are passionate about helping veterans.
They believe Janesville will respond to their effort.
“This is a big veterans town,” Michael said. “People are very patriotic.”
So far, the Fitzgeralds have funded the nonprofit foundation with their own money.
Eventually, they hope to get funding through state grants and to be self-sufficient through donations. They want to host their first public fundraising walk/run this summer.
“Being a new charity, we are mostly unknown at the moment,” Michael said. “Our drive is to bring the whole community together through donations, volunteers and those vets we aim to help.”
Carla Vigue of the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs was not familiar with Veterans First Foundation, but she said the VA is always “looking to find good partners in the community who can help us with our missions.”
John Solis, Rock County Veterans Services officer, echoed that sentiment.
He also is not familiar with the new foundation but hopes it will spread the word about the veterans services office.
“If someone comes into contact with a veteran, we certainly want that person to refer the veteran to us,” Solis said. “Being discharged from the military is step one. We need to sit down with a veteran to know what benefits the vet can apply for.”
Among other things, Solis helps vets file claims based on their military service, helps them with VA health care enrollment and puts them in touch with other programs.
He is happy to have another veteran resource.
“I get calls from people who need repairs around the house or who need a ramp at their house,” Solis said. “I see what kind of local resources we can put together. Anytime we can get another resource to tap into, that’s great.”
The Fitzgeralds embrace their new foundation at a time when they are raising four young children.
“Being a mom is the most important thing to me,” Meaghan said. But she is committed to helping others. She works part time as a receptionist in a dental office.
In addition, the Fitzgeralds have a military and first-responder clothing line, founded in 2017.
While in the Marines, Michael was a communications specialist with a top-secret security clearance. He was stationed at 29 Palms, California, and completed a deployment overseas.
Meaghan served as a combat medic at Fairfield Air Force Base in Washington, southwest of Spokane.
“I’ve always liked helping people in any way I can,” Meaghan said. “I feel veterans get overlooked. People say, ‘Thank you for your service.’ But as a vet, I know how lost you can feel.”
She described her shaky transition from military to civilian life.
“I had my family, but they don’t always understand,” Meaghan said. “I was lost for a while. You go from having command and structure to being a civilian. You are one person in this big world.”
Michael had a similar crisis.
“When you get out, you feel your identity has been stripped from you,” he explained. “You did your service, but you feel like you are starting over. It would be nice if there was a class to help people re-enter. No one tells you that maybe you should get counseling from the VA. There’s a lot the military doesn’t tell vets.”
He and Meaghan hope to bridge some of the uncertainty.
Michael described their goal simply:
“There should be no veteran in need.”
Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264 or email email@example.com.
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