Ava’s blonde hair sticks straight up in the air after she whizzes down her favorite slide at the playground.
She lets her grandma, Rhonda Rasbury, tame the static buzzing around her head. And then she’s off to the next part of the playground, a bundle of energy and cheerfulness.
Most of the time, she’s like this. She likes to sing along to the “Frozen” soundtrack in the car. Her T-ball coach has deemed her the most aggressive athlete on the field. She makes top grades in kindergarten.
But sometimes, mostly at night, she cries, asking where her mom has gone, why her mom doesn’t bring her to school anymore, why her mom can’t tuck her in. They've gone eight months without seeing each other.
Each time Ava asks, it triggers a new wave of pain through her grandmother. Rasbury tells Ava that her mom went to get better, and they pray she will come home soon.
“How do you explain this to a 5-year-old?” Rasbury asked. “I don’t know how to handle this, what to say, how can I comfort this child. It’s the most difficult thing I’ve gone through, is seeing what this has done to Ava.”
Ava’s 27-year-old mom is an opioid addict, one of an estimated 2.1 million people nationwide hooked on the drugs, according to federal government figures.
Rasbury’s daughter has been fighting addiction since she was a teenager. She’s been through at least seven treatment programs. She is now living in Arkansas and says she is clean, but Ava remains in the care of her grandparents.
And so it is Rasbury who smooths out Ava’s hair after her trips down the slide and who sings along to “Let It Go.” At ages 66 and 67, Rasbury and her husband face the difficulty of being both parents and grandparents to Ava until they can trust their daughter again.
It’s a predicament more and more grandparents are finding themselves in nationwide as the opioid crisis splits families apart. A number of retirees who have long awaited relaxing retirements suddenly face the financial burdens and physical demands of raising their grandchildren, according to Generations United, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that tracks these issues.
Louisiana advocates say they have seen an increase in grandparents raising grandchildren.
“In the last five years, our local support groups have probably had anywhere from 20 to 30 additional members,” said Kathy Coleman, who helps run the Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Information Center of Louisiana. “And the reason for it is strictly the opioid use.”
By stepping up and taking over child care, Generations United estimates grandparents and other relatives save taxpayers $4 billion annually by keeping children out of foster care. But the savings for taxpayers also often come at the expense of grandparents living on fixed incomes struggling with the financial and emotional strains of again taking on the challenge of raising a young one.
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It’s still preferable to most grandparents, though, than having strangers raise their grandchildren, said Jaia Peterson Lent, the deputy executive director for Generations United.
Though Rasbury is retired, she and her husband also own Premier Pest Services in Baton Rouge. She said they are blessed to be able to afford Ava’s needs. But there are parts of Ava’s emotional well-being, as well, that Rasbury worries about.
“A friend at Girl Scouts asked her, 'Where’s your mom and dad? Are they dead?' ” Rasbury said, adding that she sobbed over that comment after tucking Ava in that night. “It’s just all this thrown on your shoulders. It just kills me for her.”
Rasbury always hoped to travel in retirement, with the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone her top destinations. It’s no longer possible, at least not for a while, as her and her husband’s lives revolve around Ava’s school routine, teaching her which base to run to after she hits a T-ball and bringing her to church on Sundays.
Ava is one of an estimated 2.6 million children nationwide who are being raised by grandparents or other relatives who are not their parents, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The numbers of children in foster care nationwide had ticked downward for years but spiked up again in recent years as opioid addiction became more problematic in pockets of the U.S., Lent said.
In Louisiana, at least a third of all children in foster care over the past three years were living with relatives or close family friends known as “fictive kin,” according to the state Department of Children and Family Services. That amounted to at least 2,702 children last year in the state whose grandparents, aunts, uncles and family friends were taking care of them.
And for every one child in foster care with relatives, there are 20 more children like Ava being raised by grandparents and other relatives outside of the foster care system nationwide, according to Generations United.
Every morning when Ava wakes up about 6 a.m., she darts to Rasbury’s room and crawls into bed with her. They call it “snuggle time,” and it’s mandatory, Rasbury said with a laugh, adding that Ava gets upset with anything less than 20 minutes of it.
Rasbury then makes her breakfast, sometimes a sausage biscuit, occasionally chocolate chip waffles with a side of fruit. After Ava gets ready for school, Rasbury makes the 10-minute drive to the school drop-off.
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In the afternoons, they do homework before Ava can ride her pink all-terrain vehicle around the block while her grandmother jogs along with her. Rasbury’s husband, Jerry, cooks dinner while Ava plays outside on her swing set and takes a bath.
By 8 p.m., they’re nearly asleep. Rasbury reads to Ava from her children’s Bible. She prays over her, thinking of Ava’s mom as well. And she prays for the energy to keep doing all of it.
“Except for being exhausted, I enjoy it,” Rasbury said.
Abuse and addiction
The Rasburys have four grown daughters.
Their youngest started experimenting with alcohol, cigarettes and marijuana in middle school and progressed to pain pills, especially oxycodone, by high school. Exasperated, Rasbury switched her daughter’s schools and sent her to a few rehab programs, but nothing seemed to stick.
Their daughter said she used drugs to help her cope after she was sexually assaulted as a teenager. The Advocate interviewed her for this article, but she asked not to be identified by name. She asked that the sexual assault be included in this story because she said it’s what led to her addiction.
“I felt guilty and ashamed of it,” she said. “I felt like I was a disappointment to my family and to God.”
After a night of drinking with friends when she was 19, she crashed her car into a tree and broke her back and pelvis. Later, she completed a yearlong program in Nashville, Tennessee, called Mercy Ministries, and Rasbury’s family went to her graduation. She told her family she wanted to stay there, away from the drug dealers and bad memories of Baton Rouge. But her fresh start did not last long.
She began to dissociate, and doctors there diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. She said she felt like she was losing touch with reality, living in a dream, acting like a child.
She started to use drugs again, and a few months later, she became pregnant. She asked to come home, afraid her baby would grow up around drugs. Rasbury welcomed her back.
Ava was born in August 2012, unaffected at birth by her mother’s previous drug use.
“It’s one of the blessings I can have in all of this — that little baby was born perfectly,” Rasbury said.
Ava’s mother flourished as well, as she doted on the little girl while they lived together at Rasbury’s home. She decided to become a counselor and took classes at Baton Rouge Community College. She started treatment for her addiction that included taking buprenorphine — a prescription drug often sold by the brand name Suboxone meant to help addicts quit opioids.
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But one day, after she’d gotten off the Suboxone, a classmate offered her pain pills, and she relapsed. She had just two classes left before she would have graduated. She started staying out all night and living with friends, and she eventually used heroin, Rasbury said.
Rasbury said her daughter stole more than $2,000 from their family’s credit cards and she started to charge about $1,000 a month on a gas card she used in exchange for drugs. At her lowest point, she took Ava’s Audi play car and sold it for drug money. Ava’s mother said she regrets it and realizes she lost everything.
“It has been devastating to us financially,” Rasbury said. “It has hurt us and our company.”
Going to court
It was “sickening to the heart” when Rasbury found out Ava had spent time around her mother’s friends who used drugs, she said. Ava referenced them by name one day, and Rasbury flashed back to when she had begged her daughter — “Dear God, don’t ever bring that baby around those drug people!”
In June, Rasbury and her husband petitioned in court for custody of Ava, describing their daughter's drug addiction. Rasbury said she told her daughter if she did not agree to let them have custody, she would take her to court over the stolen money.
Their daughter signed her name on a sheet of wide-ruled notebook paper, writing she would “pursue legal guardianship once I am on my feet.” Rasbury’s daughter said she was off her PTSD medication when she wrote the note and she barely remembers it. But she said she does not regret giving her parents custody of Ava because she does not have the resources to take care of her.
“One of the hardest things in the world to go through is having to go to court for your grandchildren against your own child,” said Coleman, of the Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Information Center. The group holds quarterly legal workshops for grandparents struggling with the same issues.
Rasbury’s daughter said her parents pushed her to get off Suboxone too quickly and said she wishes she could move back home to finish school. She disagrees with her parents’ desire for her to go to another treatment program before she comes home, and she said she’s exhausted of cycling through program after program.
But Rasbury said her daughter has never learned the coping skills she needs to handle hardships in life without turning to drugs. She said she does not think she could ever allow her daughter to move back in after 13 years of emotional and financial stress.
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Family Court Judge Lisa Woodruff-White ordered in July that the Rasburys receive interim custody of Ava and that their daughter enroll for random drug tests. The judge ordered that Ava’s mother could receive visitation rights after two consecutive negative drug screenings.
She still has not done them, which Rasbury sees as evidence that her daughter is likely using drugs again. Her daughter, on the other hand, maintains she has not used drugs in more than six months and said she will try to take the drug tests remotely.
Ava’s mother said she dreams of finishing school and having a house where she can raise her little girl.
“I pray every day that God will protect her from some of the things I’ve gone through,” Ava’s mom said. “I’m the one who’s causing trauma in her life right now, and that’s what’s really messed up about it.”
Support group help
Twice a month, Rasbury and her other daughters meet with their support group of “pals” — parents of addicted loved ones. They watch a video about addiction, read a lesson and talk about their recent struggles and triumphs with their family members.
Rasbury started going to the group six months ago and said she finally started to find solace in meeting others who are going through similar struggles. Gwen Knox, who runs the support group Rasbury attends, can empathize. Her son overdosed in 2015 and died.
Knox teaches parents that their children’s addiction started as a choice and turned into a disease. Most attendees feel shame, believing they are to blame for their children's inability to kick drugs. And most of them are not taking proper care of themselves, either. She encourages them to find ways to bring humor and lightheartedness into their lives.
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“The child has taken over their lives; they don’t go on vacation,” Knox said. “It gradually helps them to start making healthy decisions for themselves.”
Coleman said most grandparents struggle to explain to their grandchildren how they’ve wound up in the situations they’re in.
“You have to sit there and over and over and over mend the broken heart of the children,” Coleman said.
But children also thrive with their grandparents, Lent said. Compared with children raised in foster care, they have more stability and better behavioral health, and are more likely to report that they “always feel loved,” she said.
Rasbury said she wanted to share her story in case it would prevent anyone else from having to live through her heartache. A parent’s instinct is to save their child, Rasbury said she realized. But her support group has taught her that when Mom and Dad fix every problem, the problems keep happening.
“They have to feel the pain of doing drugs,” Rasbury said, repeating a mantra she learned at her support group.
Still, she said she has faith that her daughter will return home and conquer her battle with addiction one day. And she can see her daughter's best qualities in her granddaughter. Whenever she describes Ava, praising how social the little girl is, Rasbury adds that she’s just like her mother.