As the United States goes through the worst drug crisis in its history, a generation of children is being neglected, abandoned or orphaned by parents addicted to opioids.
It’s often the grandparents that step in to fill the void.
Tisa Beeler, a 52-year-old from Chillicothe, Ohio, took over raising four grandchildren, all of them younger than 10, after both of their parents fell into drug use and the children were placed in foster care.
This is her story in her own words.
I never dreamed I’d be raising my grandkids. But their parents became addicted to drugs and they just kept messing up.
In the beginning, I was scared because I didn’t know how to take care of my grandkids in a one-bedroom place.
They were very out of control and angry. And dealing with their temper tantrums and their fits and their screaming, I would literally go get in the shower and cry with my clothes on for, half hour, 45 minutes or until somebody would come and calm me down and talk to me.
The kids didn’t deserve me yelling at them; it wasn’t their fault.
But everything just happened so fast. I was just alone in my life and then I get a phone call and I have to be in town to pick up four girls, with no home of my own to raise them. But I made it there in 15 minutes and I got them and I tried.
I know I have to do it and that's what keeps me going. Because if I don't do it, who is going to? They're going to go back to foster care or they're going to be living in a home full of druggies and alcoholics.
They were talking about giving them to four different homes for adoption. And I couldn’t let that happen.
It would have destroyed Kaia, the 10-year-old, to lose her three sisters. To her, they’ve been her babies. She’s been taking care of the girls since she was two years old.
When the youngest one was in diapers, she would diaper her, bathe her. She just took the role on and was mummy when everybody was drunk and stoned.
She’d even become mummy to her mum and dad at some point. She’d have to tell them when to feed the kids and when to change their diapers and things like that.
She doesn’t know what a childhood is at all. So now, we sometimes battle over it because she still wants to be mummy and I try to get her to be a child.
The girls have some trust issues, wondering who is going to stay and who is going to leave. But they’re learning that grandma is here for them always and will never let them down.
I don’t think I’ve got 14 years of parenting left, my health isn’t good. But I know I have to do it and that’s what keeps me going. Because if I don’t do it, who is going to? They’re going to go back to foster care or they’re going to be living in a home full of druggies and alcoholics.
Sometimes, the parents are too strung out there to even realise that they have kids. I mean, they know they have them, but they don’t want to deal with them because all they’re doing is chasing the next high.
They take their kids’ food stamps; they would sell them just to buy their drugs.
When the girls were little and they were still living with their parents, I would take food out of my freezer and take it to them.
I quit giving them money because the money was going for drugs. I’d go buy diapers and take two or three diapers out of it so they couldn’t return the bag. There’s a lot of weaselling you have do around them to keep them from using you and your money.
‘Everybody I know is some kind of drug addict’
[Drug use] is very common in the city of Chillicothe. It’s every day, all day long.
I don’t know if I could name three people that don’t do drugs in Chillicothe. You walk outside and everybody’s stoned and wanting to fight and argue.
You can’t trust your kids to go to the park without having to search the park for needles first.
As you’re coming into Chillicothe, we have a welcome sign and then the next sign is “Are you addicted?” No matter which direction you come into town, that is our first sign.
Sometimes, their parents are too strung out there to even realise that they have kids. I mean, they know they have them but they don't want to deal with them because all they're doing is chasing the next high.
I was raised here. When I was young, you ran around outside until you were about 10 years old in your underwear. You didn’t hear people talking about drugs. You never listened to the news, but when you did turn the news on, you didn’t see all these shootings and killings from drugs.
You can’t even leave your doors unlocked any more. You can’t walk down the streets of Chillicothe and feel safe any more, because you never know who is going to shoot you or come after you for your money. It’s a very sad place.
‘It started with me and my cycle of life’
My oldest son is a heroin addict, bad. My youngest one was one, too. He killed himself last summer.
I’ve had three children that were addicts and I couldn’t stop them and I still can’t stop them. To lose one of them and to know that the other two are still taking drugs, it’s killing me.
They started out as teenagers with weed and then it went to pills, then meth, cocaine, and to heroin. They’d get high, they’d go break into people’s cars. I’d find out, I’d drag them to court.
I tried to teach them the right from the wrong. But when we went to court they’d get slapped on the hands and then they’d be right back doing the same stuff.
I blame it on myself for the way I lived with them when they were younger. I don’t know how other parents feel, but I carry my guilt for my kids. And I carry my guilt for my grandkids because it started with me and my cycle of life.
My dad was an alcoholic, I married into a family of alcoholics, an abusive man. And then, after the divorce, I married a second one that was abusive and he kept pot in the house all the time. When the boys were teenagers, they found it, they got into it while I was working.
If I’d put my foot down sooner, maybe they wouldn’t have taken that route.
I sit and watch them kill themselves every day but there's nothing I can say or do and I can't mourn for them because they are alive.
I don’t know how to stop the drug cycle. After losing my son, I finally faced the fact: there’s nothing I can do. There’s nothing I can say that’s going to change them. It has to come from within them and I always hope that one day they’ll see what they’ve done and come around.
I sit and watch them kill themselves every day but there’s nothing I can say or do. And I can’t mourn for them because they are alive. But I feel sorry for them, that they can’t make better choices.
So, I don’t know how to stop the cycle other than to talk to my grandchildren and hope they’ve seen enough to not want to touch drugs.
I still have the fear I’m not doing it right. I’m afraid I’m going to steer them in the wrong path or let something happen that’s going to make them go that way. They’re such beautiful kids and they can become beautiful adults if they can learn the right stuff.
‘It’s not the same as the mother-father love’
It’s sad the world the way it is today, because the children are getting love from their grandparents, but it’s not the same as the mother-father love. I can remember being there, picking my boys up when they fell and skinned their knees when they were babies, cuddling them and telling them they’re OK, toughen up.
All mothers and fathers are supposed to do that. Not the grandparents. We’re supposed to do it when we’re watching them, but we should be able to give them back to their mum and dad.
But today’s generation, you don’t get to give them back. You just get to continue to raise them and hope that you’d raise them right to where they can have a halfway decent life.
However, these children are missing the hugs and the love that the parents are supposed to be giving them, while the parents also miss out by not being there.
The girls’ parents missed out on basketball games, they didn’t get to watch the youngest take her first steps, didn’t get to see the big one graduate from kindergarten – it’s the little things that you don’t get to do twice.
I tell them it’s OK because grandma’s here, grandma’s not going anywhere – trying to give them some stability and some security to hang on to.
But no matter what I do, the kids miss out on a lot with their parents. No birthday parties, unless grandma does it. And the parents are not there; they’re in jail.
‘I quit dragging them to the prisons, rehabs, halfway houses’
Right now, their mum is in Chillicothe jail and their dad’s at a halfway house.
The girls were allowed to visit their mum in jail previously, but I’ve decided to quit dragging them to the prisons, the rehabs, the halfway houses. Because it tears them apart.
When we visit, they’re all excited to see her, but then, in the end, they want to cry because mum can’t come home and the same way with dad. The oldest never wants to leave her dad. She’s a daddy’s girl and it just breaks her heart. It breaks my heart to see them cry and upset, so I decided I’m not going to torture the kids in that way.
If one person can be saved by our story, it would be awesome. That one child is saved. If a woman would hear my story and my son’s story about the kids, maybe they won’t go towards drugs or maybe they’ll give up drugs seeing where these kids have ended up at.
These kids are growing up and they’re going to be adults at some point, but what’s going to be there for them? We can’t say. All we can do is hope that they get a better life out of it than what their parents are doing.