Grandparents Raising Children of Those Lost to Addiction

By Olivia George

The night that changed Magdalena Andreozzi’s life began like any other. She was asleep in her Kent County home, exhausted from a day’s work and lulled into a slumber by the mid-July heat. But at 11 o’clock, the phone rang. There had been an accident, a car crash.

Her daughter, Jolena, had been at the wheel, her 18-month-old granddaughter, Aubree, a passenger. Medical staff had found opioids in Jolena’s bloodstream. Child Protective Services had been notified and called Andreozzi. Jolena, a case worker told Andreozzi, was unable to take care of her baby. Aubree needed to live with her grandmother.

Two hours later, a woman from Child Protective Services arrived at Andreozzi’s door. In one hand she held a guardianship form; in the other, Aubree, crying.

That 2013 night, Aubree fell asleep in Andreozzi’s arms. Andreozzi didn’t sleep at all. She didn’t have diapers or formula. Or toys or a crib. She was reeling from her mother’s passing just weeks earlier. And now at age 55, she had a toddler.

“I lost my mother to cancer, and I was losing my daughter to the opioid epidemic,” Andreozzi said recently, remembering that time. “And I was holding on to my granddaughter for dear life.”


Grandparents nationwide have long played important caregiving roles for a variety of reasons, such as teenage pregnancy, child abuse or neglect, and military deployment. In Black, Latino and Native American communities there are particularly deep traditions of multi-generational care.

But in a state where more than 400 people died from an opioid overdose last year, more and more grandparents across Rhode Island are stepping in to raise children whose parents have fatally overdosed or are trapped in the steel-tight grip of addiction, rehab and incarceration.

“I thank God for grandparents,” said Cristine McBurney, who has been a sitting probate judge for the City of Pawtucket since 1991. She’s lost count of the number of grandparents who have come before her seeking guardianship of their grandchildren because their own children struggle with alcohol and drug addiction.

The rise in kinship care is one of many consequences of an opioid epidemic that has devastated swaths of childbearing-age adults across the country, according to Ana Beltran, former director of the non-profit National Center on Grandfamilies.

In FY2019, the state’s Department of Children, Youth & Families removed 414 children in Rhode Island from homes because of parental drug or alcohol use, according to DCYF Public Information Officer Sean McFarland.

Beyond these statistics are likely many more grandparent caregivers with informal caregiving arrangements, said Beltran. The vast majority of children being raised by relatives live outside the formal foster care system.

More than half of the nearly 1,400 children who were removed from their homes in FY2018 in Rhode Island were placed in the care of relatives. From July 2012 to June 2018, the number of Rhode Island children placed in kinship homes increased by nearly 60 percent, according to DCYF statistics.


When Magdalena Andreozzi woke to the knock on her door in 2013, she was winding down her events-planning company and beginning to think about a life after work.

She knew her daughter struggled with a substance use disorder — which snowballed after receiving a pain pills prescription following a bunion surgery at age 17 — but did not understand how severe her heroin addiction was until baby Aubree arrived at her doorstep.

“I was in denial,” she said.

“I was a Brownie leader, a Daisy leader. I stayed at home and baked cookies.” This wasn’t supposed to happen to her, she thought. Not to her child.

In the months that followed, Andreozzi asked herself: “What could I have done differently?” The answer, she says, is nothing. “There’s no guarantee that substance use disorder is not going to affect your child.”

Research has long confirmed that children who cannot remain with their birth parents fare better when raised by relatives rather than non-relatives. But for many grandparents, taking on a whole new lifetime of responsibility can be terrifying.

“No one prepares you for this,” Andreozzi said. No one prepares you for how to navigate a child welfare system that is often fragmented and confusing. Or how isolating it can feel to be the “old lady” amid the 30-something year old mothers at the PTA meeting or the school bus stop. Or how to tend to your own mental health needs while supporting a young grandchild and an adult child gripped by addiction.

“If I fall apart, everyone around me falls apart,” Andreozzi thought when holding Aubree that 2013 night.

She began educating herself about addiction, attending therapy and caring for Aubree, all while working full time. And she lived in fear of The Phone Call. “We found your daughter,” the paramedics would say at the other end of the line in Andreozzi’s nightmares. “Could you come identify the body?”

At the time, Jolena was actively using and living on the streets.

But Andreozzi learned that there were more than 14,000 children in Rhode Island living in households headed by grandparents. And so, Andreozzi poured her remaining energy into launching Grands Flourish, a non-profit that offers support for grandparents raising grandchildren, impacted by substance use disorder.

The group was launched in 2018, she said, with the help of funding from the Opioid Response Network, accessed via Brown University’s Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies.

Andreozzi says dozens of grandparents from across New England, and a handful from states as far flung as Georgia and Florida, have reached out to her seeking support and reassurance.

Grands Flourish offers an eight-week program offering support, services and resources to new grandparents raising grandchildren impacted by substance use disorder and other traumas. At the weekly meetings, external speakers offer advice about topics keeping the grandparents up at night: adoption law, opioid recovery and trauma-informed childcare. But at its core, the group — its tagline, “some days, being a grandparent isn’t so grand” —is a safe space to share the highs and lows of parenting as a grandparent.

Support meetings are being conducted virtually during the pandemic, a transition which Andreozzi said has been challenging. According to a 2017 Pew Research study, one-third of adults ages 65 and older said they never use the internet, and roughly half said they do not have home broadband services. A third also said they were only a little or not at all confident in their ability to use electronics and to navigate the web.


Arlene McNulty, 69, of Warwick, reached out to Andreozzi in 2019 to meet and help others in her situation. Her 40-year-old son died from a fentanyl overdose in 2016 and, ever since, she and her husband, Joseph, have had custody of their grandchild, Joey.

Today, she is board chair of Grands Flourish.

McNulty counts herselves as one of the lucky grandparents. Before her son’s death, he had always told Joey: “If anything ever happens to me, I want you to be with Grandma and Grandpa.” This, she said, made the transition easier.

“But I still grieve,” said McNulty, the former CEO of the non-profit Mentor Rhode Island, a Warwick-based organization that oversees dozens of mentoring programs across the state. “I still went through torture.”

Meeting other grandparent caregivers has helped her to process the grief, McNulty said. “Before, I had to stuff all that inside.”

During his 19 years working at Friends Way, Rhode Island’s only bereavement center dedicated to serving children, Ryan Louiselle said the number of families seeking services after an opioid-related death has “skyrocketed.” And increasingly, his colleague Molly Minteer said, families seem to be contending with multiple generations of addiction.

When Lori Dorsey’s granddaughter, then aged 6, moved into her and her husband’s Cranston home in 2010, she was juggling two jobs, caring for her elderly mother and taking care of her own recovery.

Following a severe leg and back injury from an accident in her early 20s, Dorsey spent the next decade cycling in and out of hospital. “In those days, they gave you as many drugs as you wanted,” says Dorsey, now 66. “I had unlimited prescriptions.”

Swamped by the parental responsibilities that accompanied her granddaughter Gianna’s move-in, Dorsey said she had to cut back on the number of recovery meetings she attended. There weren’t enough hours in the day.

“Thank God I didn’t relapse,” says Dorsey, who has now been substance free for 32 years and works as an addiction counselor and a public health promotion specialist for the state. Her husband, David, has worked in the recovery field for more than two decades. He’s in recovery for an opioid addiction, too — 30 years substance free next month.

Gianna moved in with her grandparents when her father — Dorsey’s son, Jason Broomfield — entered a Tennessee rehab facility. The Dorseys were happy to have their granddaughter with them as their son began recovery. No matter how stressful those early months of adjustment were, they were nothing compared to the months of anguish the Dorseys endured when Gianna had been living with her father who was actively using.

“Every time I read about a drug-related arrest or I heard about it on the news, I was sure it was him. Every time I heard about somebody dying from drugs I was sure it was him,” Dorsey said, remembering that time. “And my deepest fear was that Gianna was going to find them dead, her mother and her father.”

Gianna ended up living with her grandparents fulltime for four years until she moved back in with her mother, who was then working in a Woonsocket recovery clinic. Still she would visit her father weekly.

Jason died in 2017 by overdose. He was 40 years old. His kind spirit and quick wit live on through Gianna, Dorsey said. Though Gianna now lives with her aunt, uncle and their two children, her bond with her grandparents remains strong. Before the pandemic struck, she stayed with her grandparents at least once a week, Dorsey said. “She’s the best thing that ever happened to us,” Dorsey and her husband say again and again.


The stigma of addiction and the deep pain of grief keep many grandparents from asking for the help they need. Hoping to change that, Magdalena Andreozzi is currently in the process of writing a children’s book about a seahorse who lives with her grandmother. Aubree is drawing the illustrations.

Aubree and Jolena have begun spending time together a couple of times a week; a shining ray of hope amid years of darkness.

Andreozzi still fears for The Phone Call. Her daughter is doing well, almost two years clean, but recovery is a lifelong commitment. Andreozzi puts it this way: “I am still walking on eggshells, but there’s not as many in the room.”

Now, however, when her phone rings unexpectedly, the voice at the end of the line might bring comfort, albeit bittersweet. It could be another grandparent, maybe in a neighboring Rhode Island town or as far away as Florida. They are struggling, too. But they have found each other. They don’t have to struggle alone.