HEAVEN Castro-Dinkins sat unfazed by the women making chit chat around her in their cozy living room on an August afternoon in Hopatcong, N.J.
The 2-year-old was curled up on the couch, giggling and wiggling as she reached for her great-aunt Carol’s phone.
“Peanut, this time last year you were walking—she just started to walk,” said her aunt, Marissa Castro.
“And now she sprints,” laughed grandmother Margaret Castro-Saavedra, settling in after putting the family’s two dogs in another room.
“Now, we can’t even catch her,” step-aunt Macarena Saavedra added, staring at the tot, who was more interested in the phone than the family gathering.
Absent was Heaven’s mother, Ashley Castro, whose photos adorn the end tables, TV stand and walls of the family’s bungalow.
“You always have in the back of your mind, you know, that it’s going to end this way,” Margaret said. “For the longest time—every time before she went to rehab—that’s what I thought: it was going to end this way. And it finally did.”
Ashley was 29 when she died on April 5, 2017, after a years-long battle with opioids. It came seven months after the opioid-related death of Heaven’s father, leaving the child orphaned.
“She has a young daughter now that’s left behind and not only without a mother, but without a father, too,” Margaret said. “And it’s from this terrible disease.”
Heaven is among the more than 2.5 million children in the U.S. being raised by their grandparents or other relatives because of the opioid epidemic, according to a report by Washington, D.C. advocacy group Generations United.
Parents of addicts who have either lost their battle or are in the grip of addiction are often left with a choice: leave their grandchildren in the hands of the foster care system or become a parent once more.
Many who find themselves changing diapers instead of readying for retirement say there’s little support to bring up this generation of orphaned children. So many have carved out a niche of their own.
ROSE and Chris Boehle, who are raising their daughter’s stepson and two daughters, wonder how those with less, or those who are older, are able to parent a second time around.
“This is not easy, raising grandchildren when you’re our age,” said Rose, 56. “We don’t have the energy we did when we were 30. And with finances, we worry about making sure we have money set aside for [children’s] activities.”
Maddie, Gracie and Ryan—now 5, 8 and 12 respectively— became the couple’s permanent responsibility after the death of their daughter Eugenia “Gina” Hernandez Ensley in 2015.
“She was a beautiful young woman, she was kind, she was witty, she was intelligent,” her mother said.
Describing her daughter as spiritual and somewhat sheltered, Rose recalled Gina’s horror after her first day in public high school.
“They swear,” she told her mom.
But life took a turn as Gina got older.
Rose said her daughter married a man she met at a prom after-party, dropped out of junior college and left her husband for someone else.
“Within five or six months, she got pregnant,” Rose said.
Gracie was born and not long after, Rose began hearing that her daughter was using heroin.
“The girl that was appalled when she heard other people curse was using heroin,” Rose said. “She said ‘mom, I was, I did, but we’re not anymore.’”
But what followed was years of evictions, forced moves, lengthy stays in homeless motels and promises made on the backs of pleas for money, shelter and second chances.
During this time, Gina gave birth to her second child, Madison, and Rose took in Gina’s stepson, Ryan.
“My heart broke for this little boy, who never had a bed,” Rose said. “I would insist he stay with us. I’d have him six months out of the year.”
One night, when she was carrying Ryan, then 5, to bed, she told him that she loved him - as did his mom and dad. He told her that wasn’t true.
“I said ‘Ryan, why would you say that?’ Ryan said, ‘because they don’t take care of me,’” Rose said. “Children need to believe they are loved by their parents. What 5 year old responds like that?”
On Dec. 20, 2014, Gina and her family were evicted from a hotel and moved into the carriage house behind her parents’ home.
“I was done,” Rose said. “I didn’t know what to do anymore, but this was my child.”
So Rose gave her daughter and son-in-law until April to get their acts together. But things got worse.
“At this point, they’re involved with DHS [Iowa Department of Human Services], and in February I get a phone call from the caseworker that they were doing a visit, and Gina wouldn’t answer the door,” Rose said.
The caseworker could hear the children crying inside, and they called police.
“They went in and saw that the carriage house was trashed—garbage was everywhere and the babies were filthy,” Rose said. “DHS called me and said ‘you need to come and get the girls.’ I bought two car seats, diapers and clothes and I went … if I had not taken the girls, they would have gone into foster care.”
In March, Rose received a call from Gina. She wanted to go to rehab.
“This could save her life,” Rose recalled saying.
Gina stayed at the rehab facility for one night. But despite the short stay, she returned home saying she was getting a job and planned to wait tables. Gina’s new motivated outlook encouraged her parents, and they bought her new shoes for her job.
“We went to the carriage house and knocked on the door. And she screamed ‘don’t come up here!’” Rose recalled. “She came out, and she didn’t look the same—I had never seen this person before.I had never seen her under the influence of heroin. I said ‘your dad bought you new shoes and here’s some clothes I gathered for you.’ I was so mad, I didn’t even hug her.”
A few days later, Rose pleaded with her daughter to get clean.
“I was crying and she was crying, and I said ‘you have got to get better,’” Rose said. “She said ‘I love you mom and we’re going to get through this together.’ I said ‘I know baby, I love you too.’ That was the last time I spoke with her.”
Gina lost her battle with drugs on April 1, 2015. She was 32.
That day, Rose received a call from Gina’s mother-in-law saying that she was not responding to any phone calls or texts.
“I hung up and knew,” Rose said. “I just knew … I told my husband, ‘Something’s wrong.’”
Rose and a friend rushed to the carriage house, where the lights were on but the door was locked.
“I found her laying on the floor, on a dirty pillow, holding the cellphone that I gave her two weeks before, because she had lost her other one,” Rose said. “And I can remember holding her and stroking her hair … It was just a nightmare. My screams were so loud.”
The children now permanently live with Rose and Chris.
They sold their retirement home at a loss in order to sell it quickly and be able to put permanent roots down in Iowa.
“We’ve been healing,” Rose said.
The family is finding its new normal, learning to balance the day to day of raising a young family with the wants and needs of a couple who by all accounts should be entering a more carefree stage in life.
“If anything, what I see as a common bond between most grandparents is accepting the life that we had, that we planned, is gone,” Rose said. “That life is gone. You need to come to terms with that in a healthy, productive way.
“This can be hard at times. But it’s full of joy and happiness and blessings and you need to be able to recognize that. For me, that’s having three little children here who I love so very much.”
Since taking in the children, Rose said she’s been unable to find services to help her particular situation.
“In Iowa, there’s really not a lot of support groups for grandparents raising grandchildren,” she said. “There’s not enough awareness that there are more of us out there … there’s other people out there who want to help.”
So Gina’s children and parents have put their energy toward helping others like them. They hope to launch The Butterfly Project, a nonprofit organization that will give opportunities to children who have lost their parents to the opioid epidemic.
“Music lessons, swimming lessons … we need to help these children when they’re little,” Rose said. “Our girls, when they see Monarch or Cistern butterflies, (they believe) that’s their mom checking up on them. So we thought, ‘how can we honor our daughter?’ This is how—by bringing awareness to other children in need.”
THINGS began to go down hill for Ashley Castro after the New Jersey woman got in with the wrong crowd in high school. She eventually turned to drugs to cope with the many tragedies in her life, including the loss of her father and grandparents, her family said.
“Then it came to the point where we realized she was using heroin,” her mother, Margaret, said.
Ashley yo-yoed in and out of rehab facilities. Each time she returned home, items would go missing, and with them went every ounce of trust Ashley’s family had for her.
But still, the family held out hope that things would be different when Ashley announced she was about to experience life-changing event: she was going to be a mom.
Through her pregnancy, Ashley and her boyfriend Tony swore to her family that they were sober and on course to start anew as a family of three.
But that dream came crashing down on May 10, 2015, when Ashley gave birth to Heaven. The baby was a month premature and she had a tremor in her leg, which nurses said could be caused by Ashley’s drug use.
“I was in the delivery room and I heard the nurse come in and say to her, ‘when was the last time you took your methadone?’” Heaven’s grandmother, Margaret, said. “I said ‘what do you mean methadone? I thought you were clean.’ [They said] ‘Oh no, no. The nurse doesn’t know what she’s talking about.’ Everything was a lie.”
Officials at the hospital contacted the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS), now known as Child Protection and Permanency (CP&P), which told Margaret she would need to oversee Heaven’s well-being in order for Ashley and Tony to be allowed to keep their baby.
For months Margaret attempted to speak with officials at DYFS about Ashley’s and Tony’s conditions, but when it came to policing their behavior, she said she was largely on her own.
"State and federal confidentiality laws prohibit us from commenting on or confirming allegations or individual investigations, or even confirming whether or not we are involved with a child or family," a spokesperson for the New Jersey Department of Children and Families said in an email to InsideEdition.com.
“I started to notice Ashley was using more methadone,” Margaret said. “I said ‘Ash, don’t you think it’s time to get off the methadone? You’re a mother now.’ She said, ‘oh yeah, yeah, I’m being lowered.’ … Well there was an array of things she was using. And this baby was in the middle of it.”
Things went from bad to worse in September 2016, when Tony suffered a debilitating infection brought on by unknown causes at the time.
“He said he had an infection that was more likely caused by a dirty needle,” Margaret said.
Days later, he suffered a heart attack brought on by the infection. His death took its toll on Ashley, who already struggling.
“She was coming home higher than a kite,” Margaret said. “It escalated even more after he passed, I guess because, we were into another tragedy in her life. She was actually at the point where she was just sloppy.”
Ashley’s behavior prompted Margaret to file for temporary custody of Heaven.
Finally, Ashley checked herself into a rehab facility and seemed to be improving.
“When she did get help finally, at the last house, she was doing awesome,” her sister, Marissa, said. “We liked seeing her on weekends when she was sober. Having a conversation with your sister without her rambling on, slurring her speech—it was just nice having your old sister back.”
Having seen Ashley attempt to get clean at least 10 times before, the family was cautiously optimistic about the efforts she was making in a long-term program. Above all, they wanted her to get clean for Heaven. Margaret told her daughter that when she got clean, she could have Heaven back.
“We were going to have joint custody,” Margaret said. “That never happened, because she had left the rehab.”
NANCY Krasienko hoped that having children might change the course of her daughter Megan’s life, but instead it put the Ohio grandmother on a course she never expected.
Megan Wheeler’s descent into addiction began with the pain pills she was prescribed for a broken jaw she suffered in a car accident in 2005, her mother, Nancy, told InsideEdition.com.
“She was off and running; there was no stopping after that,” Nancy, 53, said.
As her pill problem developed into a dependency on heroin, Megan’s ability to be there for her young children, Jonathan and Miyah, dwindled.
In 2009, Nancy reached her breaking point.
“She robbed her job,” her mom recalled. “She bought more Oxy and went and picked up the kids, then went to a hotel. The police went there and they arrested her. That’s what did it. That broke the camel’s back. When she was in jail, I called Children Services myself.”
Nancy won full legal custody of Jonathan and Miyah, then six and three.
“She was running around, doing heroin; she didn’t care,” Nancy said. “She said out of anger one day, ‘you stole my kids.’ I said ‘I didn’t steal them, honey.’ I said, ‘if you’re sober, I’d give your kids to you.’”
Instead, Nancy was left to raise her child’s children while struggling to explain to them why they weren’t with their own mother. After six years of navigating that minefield, Nancy had an even harder piece of news to deliver to her grandchildren: Their mother had died.
Megan Wheeler suffered a fatal overdose after taking a drug cocktail in her apartment. She was 30.
“When she passed away, I didn’t say to [the kids] ‘mommy died from drugs.’ I couldn’t say that to them,” Nancy said. “I couldn’t do that to them… So I told them ‘Mommy’s heart just got too weak and it stopped. Mommy went to heaven.’”
But she’s since opened up to Jonathan and Miyah, now 13 and 10, about their mother’s battles with addiction.
“I believe in educating these kids, because it [addiction] runs in their genes,” she said. “They know these drugs kill people.”
The children have found their own ways of coping with their loss.
“Miyah says her mom is safe, her mom is with Jesus, nobody can hurt her again,” Nancy said. “Johnny doesn’t talk about it too much. He’s angry. But they’re doing good in school. Kids are pretty resilient. Their lives have settled down, but everything’s different now—we have different kinds of birthdays, different kinds of Christmas, because momma’s not here.”
The family created a memorial for Megan in their backyard, where they spend time grieving and connecting with their departed mother and daughter.
The children now run a yearly coat and food drive called Megan’s Mission, while Nancy works to help others dealing with similar circumstances both near and far.
“If I save one life today, I did my job as an activist,” she said.
She dedicates her time to local organizations and events that raise awareness about addiction. She also spends time on social media connecting with people in need of support.
“I’m trying the best I know, just to do what I can to help others,” she said. “You’re not really getting anything back if you’re not helping the next person.”
AFTER spending five months in a rehab facility, Ashley Castro left with just the clothes on her back. The news blindsided her family. Officials told her Ashley left with another client, but would say no more.
“It was just out of the blue,” her sister, Marissa, said.
The family would later learn that at rehab about three weeks earlier, Ashley had met 26-year-old Nicole Barbour, allegedly another patient at the facility.
The morning that Ashley left rehab, she allegedly went with Barbour.
“She didn’t talk to us about leaving,” Marissa said. “She wanted to stay longer. She would call me every day, leave me voicemails [about staying] and then she took off and went missing.”
Unable to reach Ashley by phone, her frantic family realized she was active on social media.
“I flipped out on her,” Marissa said. “The last thing I said to her was ‘I want your daughter to have a mother, not a memory.’ And then I didn’t talk to her.”
Ashley’s exact movements after leaving rehab are unclear, but her family said that she and Barbour met 32-year-old David DeSantos before making their way to a motel.
At some point it is believed Ashley suffered a fatal overdose, but what happened next is still unclear.
Her body was discovered in a highway median by a woman whose car broke down on April 5.
It took authorities several days to notify Ashley’s family since she had no identification.
Police first went to Ashley’s aunt’s home.
“My husband said, ‘the police are here about an accident,’” Carol Hayde-Dausch said. “All these things are racing through my mind … and I get to the door and there are five police officers. They came in and they said it’s about Ashley. I already knew what they were going to tell me.”
Barbour and DeSantos were arrested and charged with second-degree disturbing human remains. They both pleaded not guilty and remain in custody at Somerset County Jail.
Her mother Margaret hopes to one day learn what exactly happened, but closure may never be truly possible.
“Why?” she said, to the daughter who is no longer there. “You were doing so well.”
ROBIN Raville’s commitment to helping her son battle his addiction and, after his death, raising her grandson has left her with little in the way of a support system.
“I have my grandson,” Robin, from Alabama, said. “That’s it.”
She first dropped everything to be by her son’s side as he fought for his life.
“He needed to have open heart surgery because his valves were infected from IV drugs,” she said. “He was off and on sick, then airlifted to Birmingham for open heart surgery again.”
Robin, 61, sold her home to move to Birmingham to be closer to the hospital her son was in and settled into a new life.
That life included providing for her grandson, then just 5 months old, as the baby’s mother was struggling with addiction as well.
Robin knew raising a baby would be difficult, but she was confident she would be able to provide—until she checked her bank balance.
“I had no money in my account,” she said.
Robin said her grandson's mother took thousands from her to allegedly buy drugs, leaving Robin practically destitute. Now she lives off her social security.
“I was a successful real estate agent. I had a nice home, lived a normal life,” Robin said. “That was gone.”
In December 2015, Robin’s son entered the hospital for the last time.
“He had to have emergency hernia surgery and they had to give him narcotics for the pain,” she said. “He relapsed and on the 21st of December, he died.”
Fourteen days later, her husband died.
Though she was reeling from her sudden back-to-back losses, Robin said she knew she would have to act quickly if she wanted to keep her grandson out of the system.
“I did not want my grandson to be a ward of the state,” Robin said. “My son died on the 21st. I filed for custody on the 22nd. I’ve been in it ever since. That’s going on two years. I never had a moment to grieve.”
Robin said she’s forced to remain in Birmingham as she continues to fight for custody of her grandson, leaving the 61-year-old woman with little in the way of a support system.
“I have no real help here,” she said. “My family is four hours away, and I’ve lost some family …. Some don’t want to hear about it.”
She’s tried to remain strong for her grandson, who recently celebrated his sixth birthday.
“As far as the children go, they are the victims… They cannot live with their parents. Some have lost their parents forever, and what’s going to happen to them?” she asked. “We’re raising a generation of children that are not going to have their parents. And we’re losing a generation of children.”
Life at times can be lonely, but modicums of solace can be found on Facebook, she said.
“The only support I get is from social media and [online support] groups,” she said. “You’ll see online, people are going through the same things. They don’t know where their children are, they don’t know if they’ll come home. They don’t know if they’re going to get a phone call that they’re dead in the street. Everyone on those support group pages—they all feel that way.”
Having an outlet of sorts does help, but Robin knows she would benefit from speaking in person to others going through similar hardships.
“I’m raising a child here and everywhere we go, nobody knows that I’m raising him,” she said. “I just look like the grandmother who’s taking the little boy to the movies. Nobody knows.”
LIKE Nancy, Robin and Rose, many parents of drug addicts have gone online to find others with similar circumstances.
Groups created on Facebook, such as Parents of Drug Addicts, serve as a sounding board for mothers and fathers whose children are battling or have battled addiction, its founder, Jim Peake, told InsideEdition.com.
Peake, a marketing professional whose client list includes many addiction treatment centers, created the group after realizing there was little in the way of support for the loved ones of addicts.
“I was with someone in the San Bernardino Mountains at a rehab center, traveling from one of his facilities to another, when the father of two boys called,” said Peake. “They were both addicted to heroin, one was 18 and the other was 19. I’m sitting in the passenger seat listening to this conversation with this poor father and I couldn’t believe it. I was beside myself.”
As a father with a son around the same age himself, Peake couldn’t fathom going through what the man was describing.
“I was with the person who could help the addict, but there’s no [place] for parents after their kids are either in rehab or dealing with addiction. There are no meetings specifically for them,” he said. “The internet provides a really good, fundamental way to help people in need of support.”
So in 2013, Peake created a private Facebook group he hoped would develop into something much bigger. The group had more than 2,500 members as of August.
Other similar groups exist on Facebook and elsewhere, but Peake believes there are many more people struggling than let on.
“Someone told me, ‘Jim, nobody wants to admit their kid’s using. We keep it a secret. We don’t want anybody to know.’ The shame factor is so big,” Peake said.
For that reason, Peake is militant in ensuring Parents of Drug Addicts remains a judgement-free zone that steers clear of topics that could alienate people who may rely on the group for support.
“You will be removed if you talk politics and religion,” the group’s description warns. “Do not post pix [sic] of overdosed addicts. We all know what they look like. They add no value. You will be removed. No second chances.”
The group also has a zero-tolerance policy when it deals with organizations that try to promote their offerings on the page.
“We get a lot of treatment centers who try to advertise on it and I kick them off,” Peake said. “They’re not helping.”
Peake knows how important the page has become, especially to those who find themselves raising children for a second time over.
“Some people can’t live without it,” he said. “It’s their daily drink of sanity, because it’s such an insane frigging epidemic. Parents are selling their houses. They’re unloading their 401Ks; we’re seeing that all the time … financially, these people are depleted and it’s very frustrating.”
There are few options for grandparents seeking financial assistance to raise their grandchildren.
"It's a complicated issue, but at the federal level, there really isn't a lot of help for grandparents," Donna Butta, executive director of Generations United, told AARP.
The National Family Caregiver Support Program allows states to funnel 10 percent of their grant money to those caring for grandchildren, but state programs vary widely.
“Parents are left holding the bag,” Peake said. “Enough’s enough; when’s it going to stop?”
AS Ashley’s family dealt with the aftermath of her death, one shining light has remained: Heaven.
“It’s just a matter of protecting her now, the baby,” Margaret said.
Many loved ones have taken up the role of caretaker, including Margaret, Margaret’s husband, Marissa, Carol and Ashley’s stepsister Macarena.
It’s a balancing act, and everyone has a hand in making sure Heaven’s life is stable.
“You have to prioritize and say ‘you know what? There’s a time for grieving.’ I drive a lot for work. The car is the place you hear the song, you see something, something reminds you of her. That’s the time,” Margaret said. “When you come home, you have to put on the happy face for her. You can’t just walk around crying all the time.”
Margaret has raised children before, but never intended to start over with a baby at this point in her life, and the world has changed since she last had a toddler in her home.
“I mean, I was looking forward to retirement in 13, 14 years,” she said. “It’s not gonna happen, because like I said, I’m starting over… I’m not retiring anytime soon.”
Margaret and her family also have the added difficulty of how to tell Heaven about how her parents died.
“She needs to be told the truth,” Margaret said. “She needs to know especially that drugs are absolutely terrible, that she’s first class. She’s basically a poster child for this drug epidemic now.”
Fearless and daring, Heaven in many ways is made up of the best parts of Ashley.
“Heaven’s a spitfire. Heaven is a big reminder of Ashley. Her face, her mannerisms, everything she does,” Margaret said.
The family isn’t worried about Heaven’s future, however.
“Kids are resilient,” Margaret said. “She just knows that everybody loves her and she knows nanny and poppy are here for her. We’re her world.”