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The opioid crisis: A grandmother raises her granddaughters

Lisa Laznovsky talks about raising her two granddaughters while her daughter, Tina Jurnhart, battled her opioid addiction. Today, Jurnhart is clean and has her girls back.  (Credit: News 12 Long Island; Joseph D. Sullivan)

Lisa Laznovsky knew she couldn't put up with her daughter’s drug habit anymore. She didn't know, however, that taking a stand would lead to her daughter's arrest.

Sept. 7, 2013, was a bright, warm day. Convinced that partying had hooked her 23-year-old daughter on opioids, Laznovsky drew a line in the sand over something small: a cellphone.

Her daughter, Tina Jurnhart, had stopped paying her share of the bill, so Laznovsky shut off the phone — and with it, Jurnhart's connections for oxycodone and Percocet.

They had a knock-down,drag-out confrontation in the front yard of Laznovsky's home in Shirley, with Jurnhart's 2-year-old daughter, Jayden, in the middle of it.  

Laznovsky brought up the drugs, then Jayden.

“You have a daughter to take care of,” Laznovsky told Jurnhart. She pressed on: Jayden should come live with her until Jurnhart cleaned up. 

“Don’t tell me how to mother my kid,” Jurnhart screamed. “You’re not taking her.”

They started going after each other, kicking and punching. Laznovsky called the police. They wound up arresting Jurnhart and charging her with criminal mischief and harassment, both misdemeanors. 

About a month later, Suffolk County child protective services caseworkers found Jurnhart and Jayden staying with a friend, sleeping on the couch. They gave temporary custody to Laznovsky.

With that decision, Laznovsky joined the ranks of grandparents across Long Island who end up caring for their grandchildren while their children struggle with opioid addiction.

The drug crisis has taken a heavy human toll  — an estimated 600 deaths in Suffolk and Nassau last year. The number nationwide stands at nearly 64,000. And as the scourge spreads, cutting across class and racial lines, the children of addicts become the youngest victims.

"We think of grandparents as frail, little old people. But these grandparents are taking in these young lives, bringing them into their homes, providing a safe place," said Dinah Torres Castro, who leads a support group in Suffolk County for grandmothers raising their grandchildren. 

For Laznovsky, the consequences of taking a stand tore her apart. 

“I felt I had given up on my daughter," said Laznovsky, 46. "But my granddaughter needed me."

The tie that binds

Jayden moved into her grandma's place with little more than the clothes on her back, her sippy cup and a pink baby blanket.

Laznovsky hadn't had a toddler in the house for almost 20 years. Now, divorced and alone, she found herself juggling time-outs and bedtime stories with her full-time job as a data entry operator for the Town of Southampton.

The stress took its toll. Laznovsky's rheumatoid arthritis flared up. Among her symptoms was iritis, a swelling that left her blind in one eye for weeks. 

For Jurnhart, there was the pain of losing her daughter and the simmering anger with her mother, But neither the hurt nor the hostility was enough for her to stop doing drugs.

“I didn’t feel I had a problem,” Jurnhart said. “I felt like I had been attacked.”

The hostility played out in a series of email and text exchanges with her mother in February 2014, about four months after Jayden came to live with Laznovsky.

Jurnhart tried to blame her mom for her habit. 

“The pain and stress that comes with being alone and everyone turning their backs on [me], makes it nearly impossible for me to stay on track,” Jurnhart wrote.

Laznovsky refused to take the bait no matter how hurtful her daugher's words were. She had joined a support group of grandmothers raising their grandchildren. At the group's weekly meetings, she learned that addicts are manipulative. And she learned not to fall for it. 

“OUR relationship is not the problem with us,” Laznovsky replied in an email. “Our relationship is damaged due to your addiction . … Once your addiction is under control we can work on our relationship.”

An ultimatum

Jayden missed her mother more and more as the months stretched on.

Tall for her age, with a Dutch-boy haircut, Jayden woke up in the middle of the night and cried for her mom. At times, she dug in her heels, demanding Grandma do this or that. At other times, she  couldn't get enough of Laznovsky, clinging on for dear life. 

Laznovsky dealt with the emotional twists and turns as best as she could. She found comfort — and more than a bit of wisdom — at Torres Castro's group, part of    the Cornell Cooperative Extension. 

Tough as it can be, grandparents who take on the role of parents provide stability, said Jeanette Feingold, director of child protection services for Nassau County. Many times, they keep the child from being put into foster care.

"Parents do get clean," Feingold said. "They are motivated to get clean. They want their children back."

In late March 2014, a judge gave Jurnhart a choice: 28 days in a drug rehabilitation program or six months in jail for the misdemeanor charges.

Jurnhart chose rehab. 

The night before she entered the program, she said she "partied like a rock star."

It was, she said, her farewell to drugs.

A new arrival 

In rehab, Jurnhart had to face her demons. 

"All the feelings I had blocked came rushing back," she said. As a mother, "I was very absent. I wasn't supportive of [Jayden], emotionally or physically. And I did that because I was selfish."

Days before she left the program. Jurnhart found out she was pregnant.

By that time, Laznovsky and Jayden had a good routine going. Grandma would get up, take Jayden to day care, go to work, pick Jayden up from day care, go home and have dinner.

On Dec. 31, 2014, Jurnhart gave birth to a 7-pound, 1-ounce girl, Sabrina. The caseworkers took away the baby, too. 

Jurnhart wanted to reunite with her kids, but the caseworkers decided she wasn't ready. She was doing better. Her mother could see it.  

But the caseworkers felt strongly that Jayden and the baby had to stay together. That meant either Laznovsky could take in Sabrina or she could give up Jayden to foster care. 

With only six days' notice, Laznovsky brought home Sabrina.

“I was handed a newborn at 43,” she said. “Wow.”

The restart

Today, Jurnhart is 27 and clean. She has a home in Calverton and a job prepping food. She has her two girls back — and they have a little brother, 18-month-old Andrew. 

These days, when Laznovsky sees the kids, she feels like a grandma again.

The whole bunch came over for a visit the other day. Andrew bounced around the house like rubber ball. He eventually got his hands on a box of Cheerios, which ended up spilling on the floor.

Sabrina, who is 3½, played with Grandma's smartphone. 

Jayden is 7 now. She stayed close to her mom and grandma, calmly sitting between them as they talked. She knows her mom had problems, but doesn't say much about those tough times.

“It’s in the past,” Jayden said.

Jurnhart is feeling the joy from putting her life together. And she is very grateful to her mother.

“I can't thank her enough,” Jurnhart said. “All I can do to thank her is to stay clean, and be the best mother I can.” 

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