OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Beverly Dow remembers the call from child welfare.
"Did my son-in-law kill my daughter?" she asked, bracing herself.
No, was the response. But her five grandchildren were being starved to death.
Dow picked them up and brought them to her home, where they have been ever since that cold day in February 2012. As fast as she could get food onto their plates, it was gone.
'We're not going to get anything else to eat,' Jaelon, then 7, told his brothers and sisters, urging them to eat fast.
"Their clothes were filthy. They were filthy," Dow recalled. "It took us a week to get the dirt off of these children. I'm not exaggerating. A week. They were crying. They were hungry."
Dow, overwhelmed and angry at her own children, sat down and cried.
But in the years since, she's gotten stronger. She's had to. The five children she took in 2012 joined three others she adopted from another daughter in 2008. Dow, 56, and her husband, Howard, 52, are together raising eight grandchildren, age 6 to 14, a scenario that in recent years has become more common, experts say.
According to U.S. Census Bureau's 2016 American Community Survey, there are 2.5 million American families in which the grandparents are raising grandchildren, up from 2.4 million a decade ago. In Oklahoma, there are 88,443 families like the Dows, up from 75,586 ten years ago.
Parents are losing custody of children for three main reasons, said Terry Mulkey, of Aging Services, Inc. of Cleveland County, who for the last five years has supervised a voucher program for grandparents raising grandchildren.
"It's either they're incarcerated, they're drug addicts, or they just don't care," Mulkey said.
Oklahoma's high rate of female incarceration, closely tied to addiction and tough drug sentencing, helps drive creation of grandfamilies, advocates say.
Groups like Aging Services, Inc., are stepping up to help this growing population.
Aging Services distributes vouchers in Cleveland, Canadian, Logan and Oklahoma counties that grandfamilies use in a variety of ways. Some use the voucher to hire childcare, while others use it for things like equine therapy or swim lessons for their grandchildren, while others have relied on the vouchers to pay for childcare while undergoing their own medical procedures.
The program is popular and usually runs out of funding half way into the fiscal year, said Mulkey.
The Oklahoman interviewed grandparents from three different families where parents have lost custody of children for issues ranging from addiction to mental illness to child abuse.
All said they were determined to keep their grandchildren out of the foster care system and the family intact.
They said they appreciate the help they receive, but still frequently find themselves drowning in red tape when applying for assistance and sometimes struggling to even put food on the table.
The experience comes with massive challenges, said Taprina Milburn, a social services coordinator with Sunbeam Family Services, an Oklahoma City-based nonprofit that serves such families.
"If you think about it, here they are, retirement age typically, beginning a whole new life that their peers are not. Their peers are retiring, going on trips, and now, they may be raising an infant. They can be raising a high schooler; they could be raising eight grandchildren."
Grandparents also raise grandchildren during military deployments or following the death of parents, Milburn said.
For 16 years, Sunbeam has organized popular school supply and Christmas toy drives aimed at helping grandfamilies in Cleveland, Canadian, Logan and Oklahoma counties.
The organization, which helps about 200 grandfamilies, including 600 grandchildren, each year, also recognized that the experience of parenting grandchildren can be isolating, said social services coordinator Talena Ford. Sunbeam began offering support groups in all four counties.
Linda Thele said she is over 65, lives in Moore and is raising six grandchildren by herself.
When she took on the children, friendships evaporated.
"Fifty five-plus? They don't want to deal with young children all the time. That's my idea. That's the message I got."
She began to moderate one of Sunbeam's support groups to assuage the isolation she and others felt on their new journey. The grandparents still meet once a month.
Grandparents must advocate not just for their grandchildren, but for themselves, she said, and ask for help.
The support group gives its members hope, she said.
"Everybody realizes that you're not alone in this group. In this aspect of your life, you're not the only one doing it. There are others, sharing the same experience."
Dow, a nurse, and her husband, each had careers and were ready to save money and travel when they married in 2007. Life sent them in a different direction.
The challenging circumstances were enough to destroy the new union, but didn't. She and her husband are determined advocates for their eight grandchildren, two of whom are autistic. Another child has severe mental health issues. Dow started working the night shift to be able to drive them to various appointments and make sure their needs were being met at school. Four of the eight children see a psychiatrist.
"At first I felt like, I was being attacked. 'Why did this happen to me? Why should I have to have eight kids and not enjoy my life?' Then I sit back and think, 'Where would my grandchildren be if I didn't have them? I would never get to see them. Maybe I would get a phone call, saying 'We need you to see if you can identify your grandchild because they were murdered.' I know where my grandchildren are and I'm at peace with that."
She said she has not felt isolated on her journey, thanks to her husband and a solid support network. The most stressful aspect of keeping the children has been fending off court challenges from her daughter and son-in-law, which requires a $200 per hour attorney.
"When we got to court I fought so hard to hold on to my grandchildren," she said. "I know what their life would be if they went back to their parents."
Barbara Johnson lives on a fixed income and is raising two teenage boys and a teenage girl after her daughter struggled with severe post-traumatic stress disorder. Her daughter is in the process of healing, which gives her a sense of peace.
"I'm getting up in age, so she needs to be able to take care of these kids," she said.
Johnson, 68, relied on Aging Services vouchers to pay for child care to allow her to recover from a series of health setbacks.
The retired counselor said her pension means she makes too much money to receive assistance with food or housing. While the children have Medicaid, it doesn't cover specialists who can deal with the teenagers' complicated health needs. She isn't able to afford braces for the children.
"It's been difficult," Johnson said. "But I was blessed to have decent grandchildren. I just say 'Thank the Lord.'"
Mulkey, who administers the vouchers, funded by a federal grant with a small percentage match from Oklahoma, said the heads of grandfamilies, most often single females, frequently skip meals and neglect to refill prescriptions in order to feed, clothe and house their grandchildren. The program tries to help where it can with a patchwork of initiatives, like a food pantry, and by distributing gift cards from area churches.
Oklahoma grandfamilies say seeking help from the state leaves them tied up in paperwork. Some, said Dow, who is raising eight grandchildren, grandparents, just give up.
"The services for grandparents raising grandchildren, it's not there like people think it is for us," she said.
She's been told her husband makes too much to qualify for food stamps. She's been given paradoxical advice, like she should sell her car to pay bills, which would leave her with no vehicle to shuttle around eight kids.
"You gotta rob Peter to pay Paul to keep your grandchildren out of the system," she said. "We need less hoops to jump through for help if we ask."