A Grandparents Love: Spotlight on Chris Mathews

Chris Mathews works for Children’s Home Network, one of our provider partners who provides support to relatives who are taking care of younger family members. Approximately 30% of children in foster care nation-wide are being raised by relatives.

A few years after Chris Mathew’s daughter got pregnant with her second child, things began to fall apart. With histories of substance abuse, she and her boyfriend began using drugs again. “Soon they were abusing prescription medication and shooting up heroin and anything they could get their hands on,” Chris explained. “I made a decision that I couldn’t sit by and watch.”

But Chris and her partner lived in Florida, a long way from her daughter and two grandchildren, Kenny and Katrina, in Oregon. As a grandparent living in a different state, she made unsuccessful attempts to intervene. Kenny and Katrina persevered through a series if events with Chris’ daughter, including continued drug abuse, domestic violence, theft and eventually homelessness.

Finally, after years of instabilities, Chris’ daughter called her for help one day, desperate and homeless. She allowed Chris to bring Katrina, age nine, to live with her and her partner in Florida. Her daughter soon joined them, along with a new boyfriend. Chris helped to stabilize them in a nearby apartment. Later, thanks to Chris’ steadfast advocacy, Kenny, who had been left behind in Oregon with his abusive father, came to live with them in Florida as well. Chris did all this while recuperating from a stroke and three heart attacks she had recently suffered.

But Chris’ daughter was also battling a bipolar condition that wouldn’t be diagnosed for years. She returned to drugs, self-medicating her mental illness. In 2006 she attempted suicide. Soon after, she was arrested for drug possession and jumped her court-ordered probation.

At that point, Chris decided to pursue emergency custody of both grandchildren. She learned about the Kinship Program, part of The Children’s Home in Pinellas County. The program helped her navigate the court process to get full custody of the children, secure Social Security funds for them, and connect to support groups.

“I would have lost my mind without the Kinship Program,” Chris said. “I have friendships to this day because of it.” She also secured employment with the program — first working part –time as Kinship’s support group assistant and now working full time as their outreach coordinator.

Over time, Chris’ granddaughter held steady, embraced by the love of the family Chris and her partner provided. But Mathews’ grandson, who was on track to become an Eagle Scout, struggled. “School bullying triggered the trauma and insecurity he endured at a young age,” Chris explained, “and he reacted by putting a crude bomb, known as a Molotov cocktail, in the school bathroom.” Chris knew he needed more help. With the support of the Kinship Program, Chris fought to keep her grandson out of a traditional juvenile justice facility and found a trauma-informed behavioral treatment program that he attended for several months. Throughout his time there Chris, her granddaughter, and partner drove two and a half hours three times a week to visit him and attend family therapy. The combination of this specialized treatment and the stable family his grandmother provided was just what Chris’ grandson needed.

“He’s 18 now, working at Lowe’s full-time,” Chris said. “Just this past June, he graduated cum laude. The army and the navy are looking at him; we’re not sure which he’s going to do yet. He’s such a good kid, and I’m so proud of him.”

“I’m so proud of my granddaughter, too – a lovely young lady. She is 24 and married. We have a great-grandson — we babysit him — and another one due this month. She and her husband both work and support themselves.”

Both grandchildren have learned from Chris’ modeling how to be consistent and nurturing caregivers. Now they help care for Mathew’s partner who has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Chris’ daughter is also back at home — taking medicine for the bipolar disorder and helping with household chores.

Today, Chris continues to advocate. “I’m constantly telling people to get the kids into therapy; don’t let their lives be destroyed by what their parents did and what they’ve been through. At Kinship, we help with counseling, applying for public benefits, legal services, access to medical care, mentoring, tutors, support groups, transportation, vocational services, substance abuse treatment, and more.

“And we’re still fighting for grandparent’s rights. We can’t leave these kids in the situations they’re in. The courts are getting much better, but it’s taking the legislature too long. Grandparents are doing whatever it takes to bring their grandchildren to safety. We spend all of our savings. We lose our friends. We lose our identity. Work with us to get the financial aid, the legal help, the counseling, and everything else we need to do this.”

Credit for this story goes to Generations United and their State of Grandfamilies 2016 Report