AMHERST, MA (WGGB/WSHM) - UMass Medical School has released a new study on an often unseen side to the opioid crisis: grandparents who are forced to raise their grandchildren.

The study looks at grandparents who are caregivers for all reasons and the majority are caring for their grandchild, because either one or both parents are addicted to opioids.

The statistics from the study are staggering, but this research goes beyond the numbers.

There were surveys and focus groups of grandparents raising their grandchildren, and the study took a closer look at the mental health the grandchildren and legal battles their guardians face to keep them safe.

A new study out of UMass Medical gives an updated scope how Massachusetts grandparents are faring when tasked with parenthood a second time.

According to the study, 30,000 Baystate grandparents are responsible for raising their grandkids.

Broken down by county, Hampden County is the fifth-highest in the state in the number of families identified as being grandparent led, and the study's overwhelming reason why parents aren't the head of the home: drug use.

But it's not just who is raising grandchildren, but for how long.

The study says more than half of grandparents are in the parental role for five years or more, 20% for a decade or more.

"Do you want to pull her from all the friends she’s ever known? Do you want to pull her from her church community?" asked local grandparent Brenda Leja.

Brenda Leja is one of those grandparents who's been raising her granddaughter, Mackenzie, since birth.

Eight and a half years later and Brenda is busier than ever.

She only had time to meet with me in the half hour she has between dropping Mackenzie off in the morning and driving to work.

After work, it's straight home to pick up Mackenzie and go trick-or-treating.

"Mackenzie has stated to me that she feels safe. She’s also expressed that to the multiple attorneys that she's had. She doesn’t want to leave," stated Leja.

Brenda says both of Mackenzie's parents suffer from opioid addiction.

Right now, she is fighting to remain Mackenzie's permanent guardian, rather than sending her across the state to live with a parent.

It's a battle, Brenda says, grandparents aren't a part of in the state's eyes.

"I have to take days off of work and not paid, because I have no legal representation, so I had to handle that myself. That’s what tiring for me," explained Leja.

Based on direct quotes taken from the UMass study's focus groups, Brenda is not alone.

Other Baystate grandparents say the tolls of raising a grandchild and then having no claim to their care in court is exhausting, exhausting for everyone involved.

"I see it, because of the biting of the lip that started about a year ago," said Leja.

Brenda says this school picture shows how Mackenzie's stress is beginning to manifest itself physically.

"That should never be happening. A child should be carefree," says Leja.

According to UMass's study, 38 % of grandparents reported their grandchild suffers from anxiety and nearly 20% from depression.

"Without breaking down, I’m very scared. I know what’s on the other side and it’s not good," added Leja.

The study did outline another statistic.

Even given the legal, financial, and health problems, these situations can create, fewer than 5% of grandparents said they completely agreed with this question:

"I feel frustrated with having to provide care for this child."

Copyright 2019 Western Mass News (Meredith Corporation).  All rights reserved.

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