For most grandparents, seeing a newborn grandchild in a hospital nursery is a moment of pride. For Jacqueline Elm, it was the start to the realization that her daughter was addicted to drugs.
Though Jacqueline and her husband Steve didn’t realize it at the time, they were about to trade retirement to become caretakers again.
Jacqueline watched her grandson squirm within the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit.
“He wasn’t crying like a baby would,” she said. “He was gasping for air.”
Later, Jacqueline’s daughter would tell her about the drugs she had taken leading up to, and throughout, her pregnancy.
Over the next 18 years, their daughter gave birth to five more babies. Of the six children, three experienced drug withdrawals at birth, Steve said.
“There are three grandkids that we feel we’ve raised,” he said. “Before, we were both retired, minding our own business — we didn’t have any appreciation for the court system and how difficult the experience is.”
Steve said that he and his wife had to learn how to legally and emotionally care for a child’s baby.
As a result of their experience, the duo founded Grandfamilies of Montana, Inc., a nonprofit organization that provides advocacy, education and support for people who are serving as caregivers.
Jacqueline defined a “Grandfamily” as the aunts, uncles, moms, dads, step-parents and grandparents working together to raise children.
“We’re the return of the Waltons,” she said. “In our case, it’s grandparents raising grandkids. It’s advocating for the entire family to work together, through financial issues, addictions or whatever else, to raise their children in the best way possible.”
THE FIRST thing visitors see when they walk in the entryway of the Elms’ home is an easel supporting the Grandfamilies of Montana’s description. Scattered around the poster, on the walls and in each following room, are family photos of the Elms’ five children and 22 grandchildren.
Jacqueline said they incorporated the Grandfamilies of Montana in October, “But we’ve lived it for a long time.”
“A grandfamily can be beautiful,” she said. “But it’s hard. Somedays we didn’t know how we would do it.”
Every third Friday of the month, Jacqueline and Steve meet with other kinship caretakers in the valley at the Nurturing Center in the Carriage House at 7 p.m.
Jacqueline said the support group is a chance for families to share the roadblocks they’ve faced in working together to raise children. She said by talking with other families who have similar experiences, she and Steve recognized the need to create a network of support for kinship caretakers.
“That could include creating a pool of last-minute good babysitters or even a list of good lawyers who specialize in kinship care cases,” she said.
The nonprofit is also raising funds to support families that are struggling to care for additional children.
Steve said along with building resources, Grandfamilies hopes to be a place where people can share tips from what they’ve learned.
“Like being a grandpa learning to live with a baby again or the legal stuff,” he said. “Like, what to do so that you can take the kid to the doctor? How do you take the kid to school?”
Jacqueline is also working toward wrapping up degrees in drug addiction counseling and social work.
She said she hopes to weave counseling services into the program to support families learning how to function through turmoil — for caretakers or parents fighting to stay sober.