Cody Hilbert wrote a letter to his daughter Lily from his jail cell nearly four weeks ago promising her he would soon be free and ready to establish a home where she could stay with him.

Lily, an 8-year-old girl, has been raised by her grandparents, Roger and Theresa Hilbert, while her father has been in and out of jail and rehabilitation programs for addiction.

She told them, the grandparents said, that she doesn’t want to live with her father.

“It hurt a little bit,” grandmother Theresa Hilbert, 43, said. “I know she wants to see him and be with him, but she’s afraid of him walking out.”

“She’s afraid of him getting in trouble, going back to jail and she thinks she’ll have nowhere to go,” grandfather Roger Hilbert, 49, added.

The Hilberts are not alone. Nationwide, 2.7 million grandparents are raising grandchildren. Their ranks are increasing. The number of grandparents raising grandchildren is up 7 percent from 2009, according to census figures.

About one-fifth of those have incomes that fall below the poverty line, according to U.S. Census figures. The Hilberts. who live in Monroe Township in central Pennsylvania, do not fall below the poverty line.

Roger and Theresa Hilbert have had sole custody of Lily since she was 8 months old. Lily’s father and the Hilbert’s son, Cody Hilbert, 27, is currently in jail in Clinton County but has been a repeat drug abuser and offender. The child’s mother, Melanie Cotto, does not have a stable home, and the Hilberts do allow her to come see Lily, the couple said.

The Hilberts, who had already raised four adult children, have been forced to relearn how to parent a child in today’s world. They had to brush up on their educational skills, their shopping habits and relearn the price differences in items needed for children today.

Theresa Hilbert said she didn’t hesitate when the decision came to raise Lily, but Roger Hilbert admits he was afraid. “I was a little scared,” Roger Hilbert said. “I’m older, I’ve had heart attacks. I was afraid I couldn’t do it, that she would outrun me and I wouldn’t be able to catch her, or I would have her somewhere and I would get chest pains. It just scared me. I wasn’t young anymore.”

But now, Roger Hilbert said, “I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

Grandparents stepping up

Local officials in Pennsylvania say grandparents have always played a part in the lives of their children’s children, more and more of them and other older relatives have stepped up in times of need to not only help but to become the primary and legal caregivers.

Karen Leonovich, administrator for Northumberland County’s Area Agency on Aging, said the leading cause of grandparents becoming caregivers for their grandchildren is the parents battling substance abuse amid the rising epidemic of opioid addiction. Many of these parents are entering rehab programs, are in and out of jail or have died due to overdoses. Other reasons include job responsibilities, legal issues and/or abandonment.

According to grandfamilies.org, 88,726 grandparents in Pennsylvania are responsible for their grandchildren who live with them. Of those, 28,827 grandparents are raising those children without ties to the child’s parents.

Grandfamilies.org serves as a national legal resource in support of grandfamilies within and outside the child welfare system, and is a collaborationbetween The American Bar Association’s Center on Children and the Law, Generations United and Casey Family Programs.

The Hilberts only raise Lily, but the 8-year-old girl has five other younger siblings from her father and different mothers. Those children live with grandparents or great-grandparents as well, the Hilberts said.

Roger and Theresa are truthful with Lily and candid about Cody’s situation. They even took her to see him when he was incarcerated closer to home.

“I don’t lie to my granddaughter,” Roger Hilbert said. “When he’s not on drugs, he’s a good father. It’s when he gets hooked on the drugs, that’s when you know, he doesn’t come around as much. He’ll just stay away. I don’t know if he doesn’t want her (Lily) to see him that way, or deep down he’s feeling guilty.”

The couple recognize that their son is an addict, and needs to want to get help for himself.

Support groups a vital resource

Children and Youth Departments across the Susquehanna Valley have kinship programs where children are placed with family or loved ones. At this time, Montour County has one set of grandparents in its kinship program, Union County has two grandparents out of four in its kinship program and Northumberland County has 11 grandparents out of 40 kinship families. The counties do not track which kinship families were grandparents in previous years.

Meghan Weaver, the resource family supervisor in Northumberland County, said she will start tracking grandparents in the next fiscal year specifically because of the new growing trend.

Northumberland County’s Area Agency on Aging and Children and Youth Services hosted the first support group on May 17, the only county-sponsored group among Northumberland, Snyder, Union and Montour counties. It was attended by four grandparents. 

“We’d like the grandparents to become more educated about what’s out there to support them, Leonovich said. “It will help them to make connections with other grandparents, so they don’t feel alone, like it’s happening to just them.”

There are different challenges now to raising children compared to when these individuals were first raising children, Leonovich said.

“They have to relearn, they have to get involved, processes and programs in schools have changed over the years,” she said, “Having the support and resources available to them will be helpful so they know how to continue doing the best they can.”

Holly Kyle, the administrator for Area Agency on Aging for Snyder and Union counties, and Kathi Lynn, the administrator of Area Agency for Aging of Montour and Columbia counties, as well as Brenda Appel, the coordinator for the caregiver program in Montour and Columbia, said they have noticed more grandparents raising grandchildren, but those numbers are not specifically tracked.

There are many reasons for the growing trend, but the “opioid crisis probably first and foremost,” Kyle said. “I think the issue has always been around but I think we are talking about it more openly of late.”

The counties offer a caregivers support program that provides financial support in some instances for caregiving needs, but the funding is limited right now, Kyle and Lynn said.

National Family Caregiver Support Act

When the National Family Caregiver Support Act was implemented in 2000, Northumberland County Area Agency on Aging met with grandparents to discuss the program, Leonovich said.

During reauthorization of the federal Older Americans Act in November 2000, the National Family Caregiver Support Act was enacted. This Act provides federal funds to each state to implement the program through the Area Agencies on Aging. The Grandparent Support Program is part of the National Family Caregiver Support Act, Leonovich said.

The Act provides for the support of older relative caregivers providing care to children under 18 years of age. The older relative caregivers have assumed primary responsibility for the provision of care. The Grandparent Support Program provides resources and assistance to alleviate stress associated with caregiving and to support the caregiving relationship by focusing on the caregiver’s well-being, she said. 

The Pennsylvania Caregiver Support Program aims to reduce stress on primary, informal, unpaid caregivers. The program supports individuals who care for a spouse, relative, or friend who requires assistance due to disease or disability. The program also supports individuals age 55 and older caring for related children. The program provides coordinated support through an appointed care manager. Services may include caregiving assistance, education and counseling, and reimbursement for supplies used to provide care, she said.

To be eligible, caregivers must be age 55 and older, be the primary caregiver, must not be the biological parent but be related to the child and must have a legal relationship to the child such as legal custody, adoption or guardianship, or raising the child(ren) informally; and Caregiver and child(ren) are required to live in the same residence. 

Email comments to jstrawser@dailyitem.

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