WILKES-BARRE — When Gov. Tom Wolf asked a group of grandparents who are raising their grandchildren what the state needs to do for them, Brenda Saba had the answer.
“Pennsylvania can do better,” she said. “Pennsylvania needs to do more for us.”
Saba was one of several grandparents raising their grandchildren who sat around a table at the Jewish Community Center on Wednesday to discuss issues with the governor, Department of Aging Secretary Teresa Osborne, and Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski, D-Wilkes-Barre.
Saba said she and her husband, David, an attorney, have been raising their 10-year-old grandson since 2009 and recently adopted him.
“We were blindsided by this,” Saba said. “We never saw it coming.”
Saba, 55, said she has worked in the legal system for more than 30 years. She said there have been no significant changes in the law regarding guardianship. She also criticized the policy of reunification — an attempt to identify the relationship between the child and the reunifying parent, while identifying the stressors which have impacted the relationship.
“When you are dealing with chronically addicted parents, reunification doesn’t work,” Saba said. “These children have experienced trauma by being exposed to this addiction. We need to focus on finding ways to help these children.”
Saba said the children struggle with issues of abandonment and when the parents and grandparents are called to meetings, often a hostile situation occurs.
“We need to find a better way,” Saba said.
She suggested supervised visitation between parents and their children without the grandparents present.
“My husband will be 70 soon,” she said. “I’m 55, but I am tired. What will happen to our grandson if something happens to us?”
Gerri and John Mikelski, of Pittston, are raising their special-needs granddaughter.
“All we want is to see her happy and safe,” Gerri said. “She will never be able to live on her own. I’m terrified.”
When the emotional-filled discussion was over, Wolf said he will return to Harrisburg and step up his efforts to urge the state Legislature to remove all barriers to services needed to ease the burden on grandparents.
Wolf to be grandpa himself
Wolf said many of the issues facing the grandparents are as a result of the opioid epidemic.
The governor, who is running for re-election in November against Republican Scott Wagner, told the group that he will become a grandfather himself later this month.
“Grandparents are stepping up to take care of their grandchildren as a result of the devastating opioid crisis,” Wolf said. “And we need to make sure they have our full support as caregivers and legal guardians of children, the most innocent bystanders to this awful epidemic.”
Wolf said Wednesday’s session with the grandparents made it even clearer to him that they are making sacrifices to help their families and communities and they should be accessing all the resources available to help them.
Rep. Pashinski’s House Bill 1539 provides a way for grandparents to obtain temporary guardianship while protecting the rights of parents, including those suffering from opioid addiction.
Pashinski said the bill is before the Senate for its third consideration. He told the grandparents and all others to contact their state senators to urge them to vote for passage of the bill.
“When it gets to my desk, I will sign it,” Wolf said.
According to General Assembly research, Pennsylvania grandparents are saving the state an estimated $1 billion a year by keeping their grandchildren out of the foster care system, but that figure may be even higher because many of the grand-families are not on the state’s radar.
The governor was joined by Pashinski, Osborne, Wilkes-Barre Mayor Tony George and other elected officials on Wednesday’s tour of the JCC.
Osborne said an estimated 82,000 grandparents are the sole caregivers for nearly 89,000 grandchildren in Pennsylvania. She said that number is increasing due to the opioid crisis.
Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.