Debbie Dowdal loves decorating for the holidays — or at least, she used to.

On the Sunday before Christmas Eve, she sat at a long picnic table covered in crinkly green plastic near the back of a Northfield meeting hall that had been transformed into a green and red winter wonderland party, thinking about when she would decorate her own home this year.

“I used to want to put everything up by the middle of November and my husband would say, ‘At least wait until the day after Thanksgiving,’” she said. “My daughter loved it, too. And every day that I think I’m going to put them up, I just ...”

Christmas has been different these last two years since Dowdal’s daughter, Brandy, died from a heroin overdose in April 2016 at 35 years old, leaving her three children with their grandparents. Nearly one year later, Dowdal lost her husband of 40 years, Tom, to illness.

Dowdal, of Galloway Township, became part of a growing number of grandparents who are raising grandchild-ren when parents have died from drug overdoses, are incarcerated for drug-related activities, in active addiction or are in treatment. The families are forced to build a new normal.

“You get good at hiding it, the pain. You learn to cry at night by yourself instead of in front of the children. You have to be there for them,” she said.

A national problem

More than 2.6 million children in the United States are being raised with grandparents or other relatives, a growing number many experts say can be attributed to the rise of parental heroin and opioid addiction.

Nationally, more than 40 percent of children in foster care with relatives in 2014 were removed from their parents’ care because of parental alcohol or drug use, up 38 percent in 2008, according to the Generations United’s Raising the Children of the Opioid Epidemic 2016 report.

About one in three children in foster care in New Jersey in 2014 was being raised by grandparents or other relatives, among the highest rates in the country.

“Substance abuse is a huge one we see,” said Sheena Garrett, Kinship Program manager at Family Service Association of South Jersey. “Sadly, it’s sometimes because a biological parent passed away or grandparents get custody when the (state Department of Protection and Permanency) removes the children.”

Dowdal has helped raise her grandchildren Randy, 20, Jasmine, 11, and Rylee, 7, since they were born, as Brandy struggled with addiction, but she held onto hope that her daughter would succeed in recovery.

Those hopes came to an end when Randy found his mother unresponsive in the family’s Galloway Township home last year.

“We’re aware of how hard it is for grandparents who may be grieving for their own children and grieving the circumstances that led them to raise their child’s children,” said Cindy Herdman Ivins, president and CEO of the Family Service Association.

Helping where they can

Dowdal, wearing a green Christmas elf T-shirt, watched Rylee, Jasmine and Randy play, make crafts and visit Santa at a holiday party held by the Stop the Heroin organization last week at American Legion Post 295 in Northfield.

The children’s paternal grandmother, Victoria Champion, snapped a photo of all three of them with Santa, holding their bags of presents. Champion tries to be there for the children as much as she can since their father, her son Ronnie Nefferdorf, died at 39 in February from an overdose.

Dowdal said it helps to talk with people like Tammy Schmincke, co-founder of Stop the Heroin, who knows exactly about how addiction can hurt a family.

Schmincke and her husband, Bill, started the organization in honor of their son Steven, who died in April 2016 of a heroin overdose, leaving behind two daughters and an unborn son he never got to meet.

The Mays Landing couple is now raising their two granddaughters while their mother seeks treatment for her own battle with addiction.

“If you look around, you will see that there are too many mothers here,” Tammy said. “You know, when people call me and need help, I put aside my own pain and loss and do whatever I can to help them, because there are so many of us who lost children, and these kids lost their parents.”

The Schminckes’ organization has helped 154 people into sober living, and the couple said they want to do more for the children — the most innocent victims of the addiction epidemic — who are left behind.

While they are able to manage child care and activity costs for the girls, Tammy Schmincke said she knows other grandparents and families can’t.

“Most grandparents, if not all, are living on Social Security benefits,” Garrett said. “If you have one or two grandchild-ren, you have to now find a way to pay the mortgage, different bills on a small amount of money. And now they have to figure out how to financially take care of (the children).”

Community services

Community programs that specifically offer support and services for grandparents or relatives caring for young children are available, but not everyone knows where to look, Ivins said.

At Family Service Association of South Jersey, a United Way organization serving South Jersey counties, experts offer kinship and grandparent programs that help families navigate guardianship issues, child welfare cases, eligibility for survivor stipends and other funding, emotional hardship and more.

Ivins said they expanded services at the association when they identified growing needs in the communities they serve, especially in recent years.

Dowdal said although Brandy was in and out of their home, she missed only one Christmas with the kids in all those years, even while she was in active addiction. As the first Christmas without both her husband and daughter comes around, the grandmother said, the loss is palpable, but the children still deserve a good holiday.

“What Tammy and Bill did for the families and the kids, it’s really amazing,” she said. “I think one day I’ll just call up my family members and say, ‘Hey, get over here and help me decorate for these kids.’”

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Contact: 609-272-7022 NLeonard@pressofac.com Twitter @ACPressNLeonard

Previously interned and reported for Boston.com, The Asbury Park Press, The Boston Globe

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