HARRISBURG – Legislation that would launch a navigator program to guide grandparents who find themselves parenting their grandchildren is in the works in the state Legislature.

The state House Children and Youth committee is scheduled to vote Tuesday on the legislation, which would create the Kinship Caregiver Navigator Program.

The measure has two main sponsors, state Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski, D-Luzerne County, and state Rep. Kathy Watson, R-Bucks County. Watson is chairwoman of the Children and Youth Committee.

“These are grandparents who are caught in the throes, that starts with a knock on the door and they are raising their grandchildren,” Watson said at a press conference at the Capitol last month, when she and Pashinski unveiled the plan. “We need to help them now, not when their grandchildren are grown,” she said.

Advocates are confident the measure will pass out of committee and expect it will have broad support once it's put before the full House, said Joan Benso, president and CEO of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, which has been lobbying for the navigator program.

It’s a move that advocates for both seniors and children say is needed.

The demand for help for grandparents has been magnified as the opioid epidemic has wreaked havoc in homes across the state. More and more older adults have stepped in to take care of grandchildren whose parents are addicted to drugs or victims of drug overdoses.

The legislation would create a hotline staffed by dispatchers trained to understand what programs and other assistance is available along with a website that would have a comprehensive list of programs for grandparents and other relatives who are serving as caregivers, Benso said.

“It's hard to even understand what help you need,” said Joanne Clough, of Camp Hill. “Your family is shattered. Your brain is in a fog.”

Clough, 61, is caring for her 2-year-old granddaughter Carter because Clough’s 22-year-old daughter Emily died Dec. 3, 2016, of an overdose.

The navigator program would help people make things work as they struggle to hold their families together through trying circumstances, she said.

Services are scattered in different agencies, making it all the more challenging to be sure that the family is seeking help from the right place. And, when the family is dealing with the fallout of a drug death, too many people remain unsympathetic, Clough said.

“It’s horrible the way some people treat you when you ask for help,” she said.

In a time when state officials estimate that more than 5,200 lives were claimed by drug overdoses last year, Clough’s situation is far from unique. She noted that for every grandparent caring for children left orphaned by drug overdose, there are probably 10 families where the grandparents are taking care of the children because the parents are addicted and in no condition to provide appropriate care.

There are almost 90,000 Pennsylvania grandparents heading households which include their grandchildren, according to American Community Survey data.

“We’re seeing a growing number of grandparents in the parenting role,” said Angela Liddle, president and CEO of Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance.

Liddle said that her group is trying to make sure that grandparents are getting access to state policymakers to make sure their needs are addressed.

The issue is complicated because the needs of all grandparents simply aren’t the same.

There are grandparents in their 60s who’d been readying for retirement only to find themselves caring for young children again. And there are grandparents who are in their 40s and 50s who are mid-career and “They need different services," Liddle said.

Clough noted that people don’t appreciate how challenging it can be for grandparents to pay for daycare. In her case, her younger daughter is a senior in college. So, she’s now looking at footing the bill for Parent Plus loans for her daughter’s college while also trying to pay for her granddaughter’s day care.

Benso said that while the cost of setting the navigator system hasn’t been fully calculated, it would almost certainly be a cost-effective solution to the problem.

The average Pennsylvania foster care placement cost is nearly $25,000 per year. If the state can provide the assistance to help relatives care for children so they don’t end up in the foster care system, the savings would add up quickly, Benso said.

Several other states have implemented kinship navigator programs for those raising children not known to the child welfare system such as Connecticut, Florida, New Jersey, New York, Nevada and Washington, she said.

Benso said studies of the navigator program in Florida have shown it’s tremendously effective at keeping children in the homes of their relatives instead of the foster care system.

The AARP has yet to take a formal position on the legislation, but the group will likely endorse it, said Ray Landis, a Pennsylvania AARP spokesman.

“The navigator program will answer the biggest questions,” Landis said. “Grandparents need information. That’s what it’s designed to do.”

Grandparents struggle with a variety of matters, including how to deal with the health care and school systems, he said.

While the issue seems to be exploding now, there have always been grandparents forced into the role of caregivers, so there are programs in place to help them, said Matthew Kaplan, professor of intergenerational programs and aging at Penn State.

The Penn State Cooperative Extension has been trying to provide services and connect people to other programs.

Kaplan said the most effective programs are structured like support groups. These have speakers to discuss issues effecting those in the group, following by discussion so that people who’ve been dealing with similar circumstances can share “the real deal” about how to deal with agencies, he said.

The cooperative extension even operates a Kinship Navigator web site, he said.

But Kaplan said the navigator proposal spelled out in House Bill 2133 would be more comprehensive and more effective because it would provide for the hiring of human navigators to answer phone calls instead of just posting information on a web site.

“It’s about time,” the state took steps to set up a navigator system, he said.

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