It’s our son’s children who we’re raising,” said Patt Gibbs. “We’ve essentially had them their whole life.”
Gibbs and her husband have held full custody of their grandchildren since 2012. Their son, a drug addict, lives in Idaho.
On the rare occasion when Gibbs speaks with her son over the phone, the conversations are very general. Her son never asks questions about his kids, nor does he show any interest in his parents. Gibbs used to provide him with a detailed update on how his children were doing, but she’s given up on that.
“There really isn’t a connection, especially with our granddaughter … she has no connection with her mother at all,” she said. “And you can see the kids’ attitudes changing. For our grandson, his dad was his hero. In 2012, he was 3 years old, and he hung on to the idea that dad was going to come swooping in, and he was going to live with dad … but those memories fade. I would say, starting at 7 or 8, we’ve just seen this gradual letting go.”
“LIKE A BOAT
LEAVING A WAKE”
Stories like Gibbs’s are far from unique in Kodiak.
“It’s very common. I see it and I hear about it all the time,” said Shawn Olsen.
Olsen is a recovered alcoholic and now dedicates much of his free time to mentoring addicts through the Kodiak Area Mentor Program and the Kodiak Celebrate Recovery program, as well as through his own organization, Fishers of Men M.S., Inc. Olsen is a sponsor to over a dozen recovering addicts in Kodiak, other parts of Alaska and the Lower 48.
Kodiak has fallen into a trend that can be seen across the country. In July, Mother Jones reported an analysis of five million cases of children entering foster care between 2000-2017. Researchers found that, while the total number of foster care entries has slowly decreased, the rate of those related to parental drug use has more than doubled, from roughly 40,000 in 2000 to nearly 100,000 in 2017.
Among the Kodiakans most aware of the severity of the issue is the now-retired Judge Steve Cole. Cole said he’s seen countless cases in which children have to be removed from the custody of addicted parents –– most of whom, he said, end up in the care of a grandparent or other relative.
“Things have changed so much. We’re not seeing parents in court just on possession of drugs or opiates. We’re seeing these cases come in on what we call child in need of aid,” he said, explaining that these cases require a social worker to intervene. “That’s really sad, when you see these grandparents in the back of the room and they look like they haven’t slept in a while.”
Cole said that the number of people filing for custody or guardianship of their grandchildren “are just going way up, especially the child-in-need-of-aid cases.”
“I’m struck by what people have gone through,” he said, “with none of us in the community aware.”
Although the wide scope of substance abuse in Kodiak is now commonly acknowledged, the fallout caused by an addicted person is often ignored or brushed aside.
“That one addict is affecting many people around them; it’s kind of like a boat leaving a wake,” said Olsen. “It’s just one boat, but it’s lots of waves behind it.”
Homes are broken into, violent crimes are committed and tax money is spent on dealing with these wide-reaching impacts. But while streets can be cleaned up, the impact on a child can cause a lifetime of trauma, which can lead to cyclical patterns of behavior. In Kodiak, this is already happening.
“We’re not talking about one or two generations, now. We’re going into third or forth,” said Theresa Slaughter, former president of KAMP. “We’re talking about grandmas and grandpas raising more than one set of kids, and all of their kids in prison or having been in prison.”
Jonathon Strong, current president of KAMP, said that he too has seen families where addiction has led to children being taken away. Often, this results in the addict spiraling into self-loathing and further substance abuse. Strong said this can lead to generational cycles of substance abuse.
“I see the parents, and they’re the children of addicts. They’re just doing what their parents did,” he said. “They feel worthless growing up and they’re abused –– then they have a child, and then they’re absent.”
According to Strong, the Office of Children’s Services is involved in around 60% of the situations he sees.
Travis Erickson, OCS operations manager in Anchorage, said that statewide, roughly 70-80% of cases involve some form of substance abuse. According to Sheila China, former protective service supervisor for the Kodiak OCS office, the percentage is much higher locally.
“If I had 100 cases come in, I would say 97 of them would be drug or alcohol related,” she said.
“YOUR HEAD AND YOUR HEART DON’T WORK TOGETHER”
Gibbs moved to Kodiak Island in 1980. She and her husband have lived all over the archipelago, from Karluk to Ouzinkie and Port Lions, eventually settling in the city of Kodiak in 1991. By that point, their son was around 5 years old.
“Kodiak is a wonderful place to raise kids,” said Gibbs. “But once you see … the drug culture, that’s when you realize how prevalent and daunting the problem is in Kodiak.”
Gibbs’ son had a childhood without incident. He was a very involved student. He took part in various sports and had a large group of friends. He graduated from Kodiak High School in 2004 and spent some time in Anchorage working as a commercial fisherman.
“It would be difficult to pinpoint exactly when he became an addict,” said Gibbs. “Your head and your heart don’t work together … something really didn’t seem right here, but we didn’t have any proof.”
After her son had spent a few years in Anchorage, Gibbs started hearing word that something was amiss. Eventually, one of her son’s friends decided to break the silence.
“One of his close friends came to us and just said, ‘I don’t think you have a grasp of the severity of what’s going on,’” Gibbs said.
Gibbs said, looking back, it’s likely her son initially developed a cocaine habit, but that became cost-prohibitive, so he moved onto meth. His kids were born in 2009 and 2010 –– the children’s mother is also an addict.
After being informed of the degree of her son’s addiction, Gibbs took action. Her son arrived at the house one day in 2010, thinking he was picking up his children. Instead, he was greeted by a room of 20 people. Gibbs had decided to conduct an intervention.
“We had friends of his, people who cared about him, this counselor… I don’t know how, but someone from social services was also there,” said Gibbs.
Following the intervention, Gibbs’ son completed in a 28-day inpatient program followed by intensive outpatient with Safe Harbor, a substance abuse program based in Kodiak that shut down around 2005. He enrolled in an apprenticeship, and the three generations of the family lived together under one roof. Things went well for almost two years.
In August 2012, his apprenticeship had become very demanding. He asked Gibbs if he could attend Warm August Nights, one of Kodiak’s annual music events.
“I said, ‘No problem – the kids are in bed, we’re heading to bed,’” said Gibbs. “And he didn’t return.”
Gibbs has very little knowledge of where her son was or what he was doing for the next four months, except for that he had relapsed. They later found out he had been fired from his job in October. He resurfaced in December, saying he wanted to get help again.
Around this time, Gibbs and her husband sought what they thought would be temporary guardianship, but it turned out to be permanent. Since then, they’ve held legal guardianship, which gives them the ability to enroll the kids in school and take them to a doctor. Gibbs said they needed both parents to sign off on that process – when they found the mother, she was living on the streets in Anchorage.
Gibbs’s son and his wife now reside in Idaho and are still using. In February 2017, he got charged with his first felony for possession of a controlled substance.
“I know that you can beat statistics — but … the long-time recovery rate for a meth addict is worse for that of a heroin addict,” said Gibbs. “And if your partner is also an addict, it’s somewhat of a depressing story.”
Between 2012-2015, Gibbs and her husband provided regular opportunities for the grandchildren to see their parents. In recent years, however, there has been no contact.
“The last time would have been 2016, when we all got together in Spokane, Washington,” she said. “We decided after that point that we didn’t really know if it was a positive thing for the kids anymore. It definitely wasn’t positive for my husband and I.”
Gibbs said she recently was on the phone with her son and asked her grandson if he’d like to say hello to his father. The child’s response was, “Not today.”
Raising their grandchildren brings a number of concerns for Gibbs and her husband, one of which is the hereditary nature of addiction.
“It’s worrisome,” said Gibbs. “What’s the likelihood of them, at middle school or early high school…”
She trailed off.
“I try not to fast-forward to the future,” she said. “We’re going to be pretty old when they graduate high school.”
“NOBODY GOES IN THINKING I’M GOING TO CHOOSE DRUGS OVER MY CHILDREN”
According to Erickson, the negative effects that an addicted parent can have on a child can start before birth, with prenatal exposure to drugs. The impacts can continue to build through childhood with exposure to the various aspects of an addict’s behavior and lifestyle.
“We see kids being right in the middle of an altercation. We see kids getting neglected,” he said. “We see parents who are not able to manage their emotions while they’re under the influence of alcohol or drugs and they lash out at their kids, the list goes on and on.”
In recent years, research into the effects of ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) has picked up speed. Examples of ACEs include having absent parents, growing up in an environment with drugs, the threat of physical abuse, etc. Recent studies suggest that the more ACEs a child has, the more likely the child is to suffer health problems, both physical and mental, later in life.
Studies conducted in Alaska show that those with four or more ACEs are more than twice as likely to require Medicaid, be unable to work, take up smoking, become a heavy drinker and more. Their likelihood of having a stroke or developing heart disease more than doubles. Their chance of developing clinical depression increases over five times.
“When children are raised in circumstances where they have a lot of trauma, it has severe long-term effects,” said Erickson. “When you step back and look at the bigger picture, you see this widespread effect that tends to build slowly.”
Lawrence Whittaker, a mental health counselor at Providence Kodiak Island Counseling Center who runs the Community Support Program for children and adults, said that in Kodiak the need for treatment is greater than what is currently being offered.
“We’re going to have to expand the children’s program, because I see a real need for it,” said Whittaker. “Right now, maybe we have six to 10 kids, and I’d really like to get that to 70-80 kids.”
Beyond the detriment caused to the physical and mental health of children who grow up around drug abuse, Erickson said he sees the aforementioned cyclical nature of drug-related trauma in his work.
“The way we see it play out is these kids who go through lots of trauma — they tend to grow up as adults and come back with their own children,” he said. “Nobody goes in thinking I’m going to choose drugs over my children … but you see it play out intergenerationally.”
This is why OCS intervenes. But former local OCS supervisor Sheila China said even the children for whom they find safe environments can still be afflicted with emotional disorders or display other signs of stress.
“The majority of the children on our caseload are either seeing a counselor, they have some behavior issue, they have some kind of disability,” she said. “Maybe out of the whole caseload, there might be just a few kids who aren’t dealing with any issues.”
Both China and Erickson said these issues can be somewhat mitigated by placing the child with a relative, which is always their first aim — often it’s grandparents, because they’re most likely to have the time and means to take the children in. This, however, can also cause problems.
“My experience with grandparents is it’s a major life-disrupter. Most are not planning on raising another set of children.” said Erickson. “It tends to put a lot of strain on everyone involved.”
China added that, with grandparents raising the children of their own kids, there tends to be “a lot of guilt,” which can be completely misplaced.
“They’re worried that they’ve already messed it up once,” she said.
Gibbs said she often thinks about the choices that she and her husband made while raising their kids. While they never encouraged their son to party, they never actively stopped him from drinking or smoking, seeing it as a normal thing to do.
“You press the rewind button and think, should I have played that differently at the time?” she said.
Although Gibbs said that her grandchildren have remained emotionally resilient through their experience of being removed from their parents, she recounted various stories that demonstrate the rippling effects that it continues to have. Gibbs volunteers in the school district as an assistant and has been in classrooms with her grandchildren.
“Kids are great at just saying what they think,” said Gibbs. “Some little girl turns to [my grandson] and says, ‘Where’s your mom?’ and you could see him thinking, what do I say? So he said, ‘She moved away.’ So the girl very logically just burst out, ‘Your mom moved away and didn’t take you with her?’”
Gibbs said she was left not knowing what to do.
The reality, according to Erickson, is roughly 50% of OCS cases are resolved with the children returning to their parents. Gibbs has accepted that she will likely have custody of her grandchildren for the rest of their childhoods. The consequences of this aren’t limited to just the children.
“We don’t really belong anywhere,” Gibbs said. “I’m in my 60s. All of my friends are going out for dinner, taking all these trips, and saying, ‘You should come.’”
But she sees the sacrifices as minor. Despite the years of anguish, she likes to see the positive side of supporting her grandchildren and providing a loving home.
“I KNEW THERE WERE OTHER PARENTS OUT THERE”
Last September, a nascent support group called Kodiak Parents of Addicts was set up by Elaine Loomis Olsen, a former social worker and Kodiak resident of 45 years, whose daughter has struggled with addiction.
“I was just feeling very isolated,” she said. “And I knew there were other parents out there. I’d never even set up a group before, but I decided that I would try it.”
“It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done,” she added.
The group primarily communicates via a private Facebook page, but they also meet once a month for several hours. After just three meetings, Loomis Olsen said the group already had 38 participants. The meetings are a “safe space,” where all discussion is completely confidential.
“I always liked the saying, ‘If you are feeling down, go help somebody and you’ll feel better,’” she said. “It’s a mutual aid society, where we help each other with words of support.”
“We find that the stories are different in terms of what happened in their situation, but the rollercoaster that the parents are on is very similar,” Loomis Olsen continued. “I think when we’re sharing, a bond is created, because when you share your story it triggers the same emotions that you’ve had with your own journey.”
Those interested in attending a Kodiak Parents of Addicts meeting can contact Elaine Loomis Olsen directly via her cell, 942-4633, or by finding her on Facebook