SPRING HILL, Fla. — Everything his grandpa does, 5-year-old Colton wants to do. Even if it means wearing Crocs with socks.
"If grandpa wears his Crocs with socks, Colton has to wear his Crocs with socks," said Pennie Krietemeier, 53. "I have to walk behind them because it's so embarrassing."
Her grandson's idolization of his grandfather Randy, 53, is one of the sweet spots in a childhood that has otherwise been marked by chaos.
Pennie never expected her daughter, once a star softball player and honor roll student, to struggle with opioid addiction, or spend her twenties in and out of rehab. Neither she nor Randy expected to spend their savings on attorney fees and daycare.
But they do it, she said, for Colton.
"He didn't ask for it," Pennie said. "He didn't ask to be in this position. He deserves to have a happy childhood. And the alternative is that he would have been put in a foster care program."
As the opioid epidemic forces increasing numbers of children into foster care or otherwise out of their parents' custody, grandparents like the Krietemeiers are stepping in. Those grandparents face the daunting task of caring for young, vulnerable children while navigating courtrooms and complex child welfare systems, often with little financial or social support — all while coping with their adult offspring's addiction.
"Grandparents and other relatives are being deeply impacted by the opioid epidemic," said Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates for intergenerational families. "They're being called on more and more, and usually quite suddenly, to step in and take care of children whose parents are either in jail, in treatment programs, or dead."
"They're dealing with so many emotions," she added. "Their instinct is to protect the children, to love the children, and to care for the children. And they will go to incredible extremes to do so, oftentimes without any support or assistance."
After years of decline, the number of children entering foster care is rising, with over 30,000 more children entering foster care in 2015 than in 2012. Federal and state officials point to the opioid epidemic. Some states have been hit harder than others, with officials from Indiana to Wisconsin to Oregon reporting skyrocketing rates of children being removed from their homes because of parental substance abuse.
Generations United estimates there are about 2.6 million American children being raised by grandparents or relatives.
We're at a "tipping point," said Larry Cooper, head of the Children's Home Network, a Tampa-based nonprofit that helps at-risk families. "[Grandparents are] yelling, screaming out loud for legislators and local officials to step up and support them."
Grandparents across the country who spoke to NBC News said they're desperate for support.
The everyday costs of raising a young child, from diapers to daycare, can overwhelm any parent. But raising a child left behind by opioid addiction can mean thousands of dollars spent on adoption and legal fees. Children exposed to the trauma of parental substance abuse, or to opioids before birth, need therapy and extra care to thrive. Grandparents, many of whom are on limited incomes, quickly find themselves overwhelmed.
For the grandparents who step in, finding help to put the pieces back together can be an uphill battle. Resources available to grandparents raising their grandchildren vary from state to state, and eligibility for financial assistance or programming can depend on a variety of factors, including income level, or whether a grandparent becomes a licensed foster care parent.
A small investment in grandparents, through supportive programming and financial assistance, can go far, Cooper said.
"The kids will do better," he said. "They'll have more permanency. Their behaviors, their response to the trauma, will be much better when they can be with a family member that they care and trust and they know. And it will save the state hundreds of thousands, if not millions, over the long haul when they really put in the effort."
Grandparents said that some of the hardest times come when the realities of child welfare rules clash against the necessities of daily life. The $180 monthly stipend the Krietemeiers receive from the state doesn't go far, and the couple has spent thousands to obtain permanent legal guardianship of Colton. Without it, they said, they wouldn't have been able to take him to the doctor, or sign him up for school.
"We've had to rethink our retirement," Pennie said. "There are really no resources out there for people in our situation that I'm aware of. If I didn't have the funds to pay for daycare or a nanny or activities or things like that, I don't know what I would do."
The family isn't considering adoption, Pennie said, because they're hopeful their daughter, Caitlin, will recover. "I can't lose hope," she said. "I can never give up on her."
Eight months sober, Caitlin is working hard to stay that way and eventually reunite with her son. "I'm happy that I don't have to wake up every morning chasing my next high," she said. "It's definitely a struggle, every day. It's always in the back of my mind."
But when Pennie was researching her options, she said she found out that while her job offers reimbursement for adoption fees to its employees, the Krietemeiers don't qualify for it because they are related to their grandson.
Connecticut's Department of Children and Families (DCF) helped Elana Davis, 44, bring her 7-year-old granddaughter Sophia home from foster care in New Mexico by covering the family's legal and adoption fees. But with two adult children in college and a household Davis describes as paycheck-to-paycheck, other costs add up.
"We struggle like everybody else in America," Davis said.
Lost between court appearances and daycare, grandparents say, are moments for themselves. As parents of addicts, many of whom have lost children to fatal overdoses, grandparents are often unable to make room for therapy, dates with friends or spouses, or anything else that may help them grieve or maintain a sense of normalcy. Retirement plans, many find, fly out the window.
"Now we're going into the second grade again, for the fourth time," she added. "We didn't have grand plans, but we probably thought we would not be raising a child all over again."
Both Davis and Krietemeier, separated by over 1,200 miles, turned to Facebook. The social media network is home to support groups where parents and grandparents of addicts can share stories, give advice, and vent.
"If you go on there and you say something, you have hundreds of responses from people who know the exact feeling that you're having," Krietemeier said. "You know you're not alone. You know that there are people out there who get you."
The groups know, she added, "what it's like to mourn the loss of a child that's alive."
NBC News asked one Facebook group, Grandparent 2 Grandparent, what they wanted people to know about grandparents who are raising their grandchildren because of the opioid crisis. The responses came pouring in.
"Therapy needs for kids who've been exposed to all this trauma," said one. "Financial assistance for lower income grandparents plowing through retirement savings," said another.
And another: "We shouldn't have to pay to adopt family."
In some states, members noted, grandparents lose financial assistance if they formally adopt, but continue to receive a stipend if the child stays in the foster care system.
"We want to adopt and keep them safe," said a group member. "How do we retire?"
'I'm happy here'
Shaelyn, 10, celebrates small things.
New school clothes. Her grandmother's spaghetti with zucchini and alfredo sauce. Karate medals. Nights that pass without her 9-year-old brother Ayden waking up from a nightmare. And the recent weigh-in that showed she was the right weight for her age.
It wasn't always like this.
She and her brother bore the brunt of their mother's addiction. Back then, life meant being afraid of adults. It meant sometimes going without regular meals. It meant bouncing around from house to house, relative to relative.
On the days she made it to school, Shaelyn said, "It was hard to focus. I was worried about what my mom was doing."
Then her "hero," as Shaelyn tells it, stepped in.
Rebecca Schuckert, 54, fought to get custody of her grandchildren after police discovered them in a house with loaded guns and drugs, including heroin. When she did, she packed the kids into the car and made the long drive from Indiana to their new home in Florida.
"I tell them all the time, 'You're safe now,'" Schuckert said.
Schuckert and her husband cleared out the extra rooms in their home, signed the kids up for school and martial arts lessons, and worked hard to give them a normal life. Their mother has been sober for nearly two years. But Ayden and Shaelyn, a serious little girl with a thousand-yard stare, still tell stories that bring tears to her eyes.
"They still come out and say, 'Oh Grandma I remember this,'" Schuckert said. "It's just heartbreaking."
One thing that helped, she said, was the support she received from the Kinship Program at the Children's Home Network in Tampa.
Last August, Tena Randecker sat with Schuckert and paged through the programs available for her and her grandchildren. A monthly support group close to home. Events at the local library.
"I'd be lost without her," Schuckert said. "She really helped. I never had to do this before with my own children."
As a Kinship Navigator with the Children's Home Network, Randecker, who is raising her own grandchildren, connects grandparents to financial assistance and low-cost or free programming. The Network also runs monthly support groups for grandparents.
"I wanted to give back," Randecker said. "We need the caregivers to know they aren't alone."
A testament to both the resilience of childhood and the power of a grandparent's love, today Shaelyn and Ayden are thriving. Both are on the honor roll at school. This year, Shaelyn received gold and silver medals in martial arts competitions. Last week, Ayden won his first gold medal.
"I'm happy here," Shaelyn said.
Their mother, Jordan Brewer Cantwell, is proof too of the power of recovery. Being an addict, she said, is "not something I ever woke up and wanted to be. It’s not something that can be fixed overnight."
But she fought to be sober. Next month, it will be two years.
"I still have a lot to work on," she said. The best thing for her children, she said, is to stay with their grandparents. "For once, I’m trying to do what’s right for them."
Even so, like other grandparents touched by the opioid epidemic, Schuckert lives every day worried that she will lose custody of the children.
"You just try to reassure them, 'I'll do whatever I can,'" she said. "I won't give up fighting."
Davis, of Connecticut, knows that worry by heart.
Over a year ago, she and her husband fought to get their granddaughter Sophia out of foster care because her parents, both struggling with opioid addiction, couldn't take care of her. Sophia, who loves horses and playing with bugs, remembers the bright side of things: the bubble gum her social worker gave her on the airplane, a birthday card sent from her father, who is incarcerated.
"It's an emotional pull in my heart when I look down and see my granddaughter," Davis said. "It brings me joy that she's with me, but it brings me sadness, because I know that something devastating went on for her to be with us."
They decided to formally adopt Sophia, Davis said, to give her stability. "The paperwork, the social workers, the DCF involvement, now it's over," she said. "She can have a relationship with her parents. She can and she does. But there had to be a permanent solution. She had a life of chaos, and that's not fair."
At her adoption ceremony last July, in a pink princess dress and rhinestone tiara, Sophia told the judge what she called her adoptive parent. It was a moment of joy, rooted in tragedy, and a long time coming.
"Grandma," she said, and the family members and friends who filled the courtroom broke into applause.