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Prevalence of opioid addiction means more ‘grandfamilies’

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INSTITUTE, W.Va. — Deena and Keith Ellison thought they’d be finished raising children by now. Deena’s kids were under 7, and Keith’s were teenagers when the couple got together in the early 1990s.

Now, Deena, 54, and Keith, 63, find themselves parenting again — this time for Deena’s grandchildren, 9-year-old Jeorgia and 14-year-old Jackson.

“He adopted my son when he was 6,” Deena said of her husband. “He had to start over — this is the third time.”

“It’s kind of what I do,” Keith joked.

The Ellisons have played a big role in caring for Jackson and Jeorgia since the beginning. The kids stayed at their grandparents’ home most weekends, school holidays and at least one night during the week since they were little.

Their mother, Deena’s daughter, was a teenager when she became a mom.

“She wasn’t ready,” Deena said.

Three years ago, the Ellisons took on a more formal and permanent role when they became their grandchildren’s legal guardians. Deena said her daughter’s drug addiction made her unable to care for her children.

The Ellisons are not alone. In West Virginia, about 22,000 children live with a relative or close friend without a parent present, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Nationally, the number of children living with grandparents who are responsible for their care grew from 2.5 million to 2.9 million between 2005 and 2015, according to Pew Research Center.

In West Virginia, the number of children in “kinship care” increased from a three-year average of 19,000 for the years 2009 to 2011, to 28,000 for 2013 to 2015, though at last count it was down to 22,000 for 2014 through 2016. Kinship care includes children in the care of all kinds of relatives besides parents, but mostly means grandparents, said Jaia Peterson Lent, deputy executive director for Generations United, an organization that operates the National Center on Grandfamilies.

According to a recent report from Lent’s organization, substance abuse is the most common reason for these “grandfamilies” to come together.

Lent said the number of grandfamilies has increased nationally and specifically in places like West Virginia that have been hit hard by the opioid epidemic. She said she can’t explain West Virginia’s most recent drop in the number of grandfamilies but looks forward to the new data in the fall.

“The increase is steady nationally in recent years and our expectation is it will continue to increase,” Lent wrote in an email. “We do see some sharper increases in other states that have been hit hard like Ohio for example.”

Bonnie Dunn, an extension specialist at the West Virginia State University Extension Service, teaches a class for people like the Ellisons, who are parenting for the second time.

Dunn said she’s taught 49 families so far, and in all but two cases, the grandparents are raising the grandchildren because of drug-related reasons. Some have children who are in prison, others have died or have had their parental rights terminated.

Dunn’s weekly Healthy Grandfamilies program through West Virginia State University is nine sessions long and teaches grandparents about nutrition, legal issues and family dynamics.

Grandparents also learn about social media and technology — issues they didn’t have to think about during their first go at being parents.

“It is not like it was a generation ago to parent, because of dealing with social media issues that these parents are most often not prepared to handle because they don’t know anything about it,” Dunn said.

The group also helps with something more basic: allowing grandparents a place to meet and talk with others going through the same thing.

The grandparents Dunn meets often feel guilt at raising grandchildren after they’ve raised their own kids who now have substance abuse problems and other issues: “(They think), ‘I didn’t do it right the first time, so how am I going to do it right the second time?'”

Dunn tries to encourage them, telling them, “You have a second opportunity to do it again, and the only thing that you can do is love them, provide a roof for them, feed them and do the best you can. They grow up to be adults, and they make their own choices and you cannot control them.”

The Ellisons said they want to make sure their grandchildren have stability. They deserve that, they said.

On a hot evening in late May, the family gathered around the table for dinner. Over take-out pizza and homemade parfaits, they talked about the day.

School was about to let out for the summer. Jeorgia excitedly chattered about her class’s field day events, and Jackson recounted the end-of-year awards he received. It’s a dinner-time ritual they do whenever they can.

For Deena and Keith, raising their grandchildren is not without its challenges.

Deena is putting off retirement, even though she’s worked 23 years for the state. Keith is technically retired but does odd jobs to help make ends meet.

“Jackson starts high school this year, (and) Jeorgia will be in middle school next year,” Deena said. “So four years from now, we’ve got to start looking at college. So retirement — I’m eligible for retirement, but it’s not something I can do.”

They get some government help in the form of child-only TANF and Medicaid cards for the children. The TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) covers only the cost of after-school day care for Jeorgia.

They’re lucky to have an extended family that pitches in with babysitting and other help when they need it.

“We would not be able to do this without our family,” Deena said.

At first Deena and Keith didn’t intend to raise the kids permanently. They had hoped them being taken away would be a wake-up call for Deena’s daughter. The opposite has happened, Deena said.

But now, Deena and Keith said, they wouldn’t want the kids to leave.

“They’re so much a part of our lives that I could not imagine them not being in our house,” Deena said. “There are days when we’re going ‘ah!’ but they’re ours. They’re part of us.”

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Colorado, Arizona teachers pressure lawmakers for 2nd day

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Colorado and Arizona teachers plan to don red shirts and descend upon their respective Capitols for a second day in a growing educator uprising.

Educators in both states want more classroom resources and have received offers either for increased school funding or pay, but they say the money isn’t guaranteed and the efforts don’t go far enough. The walkouts are the latest in demonstrations that spread from West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky.

On the first day of the historic statewide walkout, around 50,000 educators and their supporters marched Thursday through downtown Phoenix in nearly 100-degree (38-Celsius) heat and swarmed the Capitol grounds.

In much cooler Colorado, several thousand educators rallied around the Capitol, with many using personal time to attend two days of protests expected to draw as many as 10,000 demonstrators.

Lawmakers in Colorado have agreed to give schools their largest budget increase since the Great Recession. But teachers say Colorado has a long way to go to recover lost ground because of strict tax and spending limits.

Arizona’s Republican governor, Doug Ducey, has proposed 20 percent raises by 2020 and said he has no plans to meet with striking teachers or address other demands.

Teachers voted to walkout after Ducey unveiled his plan, saying that it failed to meet their other demands including about $1 billion to return school funding to pre-Great Recession levels and increased pay for support staff.

“We’re going to get this 20 percent pay increase, we’re going to get $100 million for support staff and other needs,” he said on KTAR radio. “And then if there’s still a teacher strike I don’t think that will make sense to parents, I don’t think that will make sense to kids.”

More than 840,000 students were out of school as a result of Thursday’s walkouts, according to figures from The Arizona Republic.

Most of Arizona’s public schools will be closed the rest of the week, and about half of all Colorado students will see their schools shuttered over the two days as teachers take up the Arizona movement’s #RedforEd mantle. In Oklahoma and West Virginia, teacher strikes stretched beyond the one-week mark.

Organizers say they haven’t decided how long their walkout will last.

“We want to make sure we can gauge the membership about what they want to do,” said Derek Harris, one of the organizers of grass-roots group Arizona Educators United.

At least one Arizona school district, the Chandler Unified School District, has said school will be held on Monday. The district said it polled staff and determined there are enough teachers to re-open.

___

Associated Press reporter Bob Christie contributed to this report.

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Robert Kennedy gets the Netflix treatment, new doc explores the the icon

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He was once called the most likely American in the 20th century to become president. But Robert F. Kennedy’s bid to follow in his older brother’s footsteps as commander in chief was cut short the same way John F. Kennedy’s White House term was: by a man with a gun.

Fifty years later, Bobby Kennedy’s life and transformation into a liberal hero is coming to Netflix in a new four-part documentary series available Friday. Through archival footage and interviews with friends and staffers, “Bobby Kennedy for President” takes an in-depth look at what drove him to seek public office, the events that shaped him and his legacy decades after his assassination.

“If we want to understand why Bobby Kennedy was so important to people, we have to understand all of it,” said Dawn Porter, director and executive producer, also known for “Gideon’s Army” and “Trapped.”

The series opens with a broadcaster’s prediction that “no American in this century has ever been so likely to be president as Robert Francis Kennedy.” It takes viewers through Kennedy’s combative time as attorney general, and his depression after his brother’s death, entry into the 1968 presidential race and assassination 83 days later.

The documentary explores Kennedy’s growth on issues like civil rights, through the guidance of black leaders like John Lewis, now a Democratic congressman. In documenting Kennedy’s journey from a “cop-at-heart” lawyer to polished politician, it highlights experiences that affected him, like a trip to the Mississippi Delta that opened his eyes to rural hunger.

Viewers hear from key figures in Kennedy’s life, including Paul Schrade, who was shot in the head when 24-year-old Sirhan Sirhan fired at Kennedy on June 5, 1968. The series, produced by RadicalMedia, Trilogy Films and LooksFilm, also features interviews from Sirhan’s brother, Munir Sirhan, and Juan Romero, the Ambassador Hotel busboy who was at Kennedy’s side as he uttered his last words: “Is everybody OK?”

For Romero, a Mexican immigrant, it was one of the few times he has openly spoken about Kennedy’s death — something he had felt guilty about for years since Kennedy stopped to shake his hand before the gunshots. Romero had met Kennedy the day before while delivering room service. Kennedy thanked him and shook his hand then, too.

“I never felt so American,” Romero told The Associated Press.

Filmmakers spent more than a year gathering footage from museums, news outlets and presidential archives that transports viewers to a different time. Some of the footage, which shows Kennedy from his college days to the last day of his life, had never before been digitized and was at risk of being lost forever, filmmakers say.

“I didn’t want this to be talking heads with pictures as the background,” Porter said. “We wanted the archive to play out, to not be window dressing, but to let people watch that and absorb it and hopefully be in the moment, be taken back to that time,” she said.

At a time when distrust of politicians is high, Porter said she hopes the series reminds viewers that people serving in public office can be human and flawed, but also inspirational.

“Without saying (Kennedy) was the perfect person, there’s something comforting and inspiring to me about his willingness to try, his willingness to learn, his willingness to not give up,” Porter said. “Right now we all need a little dose of not giving up.”

___

Associated Press reporter Russell Contreras in Albuquerque, New Mexico, contributed to this report. Follow Alanna Durkin Richer at http://twitter.com/aedurkinricher. Read more of her work at http://bit.ly/2hIhzDb.

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Explained: Why Colorado, Arizona teachers are walking off the job

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Tens of thousands of schoolteachers plan to walk off the job in Arizona and Colorado on Thursday, shuttering classrooms in pursuit of better pay and school funding.

But there are key differences between the protests in the two states, which share below-average spending on public schools. The actions build on a movement that spread from West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky.

Here’s a look at what’s happening in Arizona and Colorado:

WHAT ARE TEACHERS PLANNING AND WHAT WILL HAPPEN?

Teachers will walk off the job to hold rallies and other demonstrations at their respective state Capitols.

In Arizona, the first-ever statewide strike starts Thursday after educators voted overwhelmingly in favor of the action. There’s no end date scheduled, so it’s not clear how long classes might be interrupted.

Educators who are planning to participate could face consequences in the right-to-work state, where unions do not collectively bargain with school districts and representation is not mandatory.

The Arizona Education Association, the largest teacher membership group, has warned its 20,000 members about a 1971 Arizona attorney general opinion saying a statewide strike would be illegal under common law and participants could lose their teaching credentials.

But no school district has said they would fire educators who strike or revoke teaching certificates.

In Colorado, teachers in four suburban school districts, including two of the largest in the state, will hold protests Thursday. But the bulk of the widespread walkouts will happen as a single-day demonstration Friday.

No laws in Colorado prohibit strikes. In response to recent national protests, a Republican lawmaker proposed a measure docking teacher pay and threatening fines and jail time for striking. Democrats oppose it, and it’s not expected to pass the politically divided Legislature.

WHAT ARE THE DEMANDS?

Arizona teachers have a long list, including a 20 percent raise for teachers, who earn $47,403 annually compared with a national average of $59,660, according to 2017 data from the National Education Association. They also want yearly raises until their salaries reach the national average and competitive wages for classified staffers.

They are seeking a return to pre-Great Recession spending levels, which would be a roughly $1 billion increase annually, plus additional funding increases until Arizona reaches the national average in per-pupil spending.

In Colorado, teachers secured a $150 million annual boost to schools in this year’s budget negotiations but want to wipe out an annual school funding shortfall within the next four years. After next year’s boost, Colorado will underfund its schools by $672 million a year versus what’s required by the state Constitution.

Colorado teachers don’t have specific demands regarding salaries, because they are set at the local level. But the hope is that more state funding will trickle down in the form of better pay. The average Colorado teacher earned $51,808 in 2017, according to the national teacher salary data.

Complicating matters, lawmakers are negotiating sweeping changes to the state and school pension fund, which will likely cut teacher retirement benefits and could decrease their take-home pay. Educators say they hope their protests highlight that any changes to the pension fund could further erode their compensation.

HOW ARE STATE LEADERS RESPONDING?

Republican Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona has offered teachers a 20 percent raise by 2020 and pledged to see his proposal through despite concerns on how to fund it.

Ducey’s plan relies on higher-than-expected state revenue. Republican legislative leaders have questioned where the money might come from and are negotiating the plan this week.

Colorado lawmakers have secured a bipartisan deal to boost school funding but are negotiating on the pension changes. Republicans want public employees, including teachers, to put more of their own pay into the system to close a $32 billion funding gap. Democrats have countered with a plan to contribute $225 million in annual state funding to shore up the fund.

WHAT DOES THE WALKOUT MEAN FOR SCHOOLS, TEACHERS AND PARENTS?

In both states, school districts have been weighing whether to stay open or cancel classes.

Many in Arizona, including the state’s largest district in suburban Phoenix, will be closed at least Thursday and Friday. Some have said they will try to stay open if they have enough staff.

Many parents are scrambling to make child care plans. Community groups are organizing day camps, churches are opening for free care and some stay-at-home parents are volunteering to watch others’ children.

Colorado’s largest district, Denver Public Schools, will be closed Friday, along with more than a dozen others. Four others, including large suburban districts in Jefferson and Douglas counties, will be shuttered Thursday but are expected to reopen Friday.

One more thing...

Local and independent journalism is under threat in the West and you change that.  With corporate raiders slashing newsrooms across the West, the PULP is one of the "Last Locals" in Colorado to produce original, compelling journalism missing in today's profit hungry world. But that costs money, time and hard work. We don't believe in spamming you with ads or putting up restrictive paywalls and that's why we need your help.

For every contribution, we put 100% back into producing original and amazing journalism. That's a promise only a local and independent newsroom can promise. Take heart because you will fuel stories just like this one and the future of journalism.
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