The knock often comes late at night — usually without warning. A state social worker has removed the children from their parents’ house after a credible accusation of abuse or neglect. The message is sobering: We need to find a safe place for your grandchildren — either you take them or we’ll place them in foster care.
Other times, it’s a painfully slow process, filled with bitter custody battles that exacerbate the children’s trauma. Or maybe the whole family agrees it’s better if the kids stay with grandma while mom and dad try to get sober.
Across New Mexico, grandparents have become an unofficial safety net, stepping up to raise the grandkids when their own children can’t. More than 26,000 grandparents are raising 55,000 grandchildren, which works out to 10 percent of all the state’s kids — nearly double the rate during the 1990s.
Cases of “kinship guardianship,” as it is known, are hardly unique to New Mexico. In an age of an opioid epidemic that does not discriminate based on ZIP code or ethnicity, communities across the country are reporting increasing cases of kids being raised by their grandparents. But in New Mexico, where family ties run deep, grandparents are playing an unusually common role in caring for their grandkids.
They come from all backgrounds. Some are well-to-do, while others struggle to make ends meet. A woman in Chimayó who is raising two granddaughters started a nonprofit to help others in her position. An Albuquerque couple lives with their 10-month-old granddaughter in a homeless shelter until they can find a place of their own. An Air Force veteran in Santa Fe, well-off by comparison because of his military pension, struggles with the unexpected responsibility of raising a child again.

No matter where they are, these grandparents are making an enormous sacrifice for the sake of their families. And every child they take in saves the state up to $25,000 a year in foster care costs.
Yet the state rarely lends a hand. Though many grandparents qualify for a number of support programs — Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, respite services, state-subsidized child care — a staggering number report not being able to access those services, even when they meet eligibility requirements.
Sometimes the grandparents are turned away at the window of a state Income Support Division office without a proper review. Other times, the procedures for applying for aid are so labyrinthine and contradictory that they can’t navigate the process without a legal advocate. Occasionally, their applications are incorrectly denied by ASPEN, the state’s glitch-prone computer system.
It’s an issue that has long drawn the ire of legal and child advocates, who allege that state agencies consistently and illegally deny benefits to needy families.
The most recent example, a lawsuit filed against the state by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty in September 2018, claims that state agencies are handing out child care assistance based on secretly formulated rules without clearly defined eligibility requirements, in violation of the state constitution.
Even so, those problems have not stopped grandparents from stepping up to the plate.
As one grandmother raising her granddaughter put it: “My life doesn’t come first. Her life comes first.”

Ed Williams, a Searchlight investigative reporter, covers child welfare, social justice and other issues. In 2022, he was selected for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network to produce stories about abuses...