MIAMI COUNTY — They are boys and girls. They are various races and ethnicities. They are newborns and adolescents. They are the youngest victims of an epidemic that knows no color lines, gender divisions or age limits, one that has swept the nation with a vengeance, from Hollywood to the heartland, including right here in Miami County.
Many of them are too young to talk yet, and those who are old enough can tell stories that sound more like nightmares. But by and large, their voices go unheard, so someone must speak for them.
“These children, typically, have experienced a great deal of trauma and their needs are complex,” said June Cannon, executive director of the Miami County Children’s Services Board. “Overall, these children are more likely to have physical, emotional and intellectual problems. The impact that the drugs have had on the family and the child is significant.”
The opioid crisis is stretching the state’s foster care system thin as record numbers of children are removed from the homes of drug-addicted parents. According to statistics from the Public Children Services Association of Ohio (PCSAO), more than 15,500 children are now in foster care, up from about 12,600 four years ago. At the rate the epidemic is worsening, the state is on track to place more than 20,000 children in foster care by 2020.
Locally, the Miami County Children’s Services Board experienced an “alarming” increase during calendar year 2016 — approximately 40 percent — in the number of children in foster care, Cannon noted.
“Of the children who entered care, 51 percent of the families had issues related to drugs, and 30 percent of the families had issues specifically with opioids. In 2017, 33 percent of children who entered custody were removed, in part, due to their parents’ substance use.”
Cannon added that these cases often come part and parcel with a number of other problems born of the opioid crisis, including neglect and abuse, as well as child endangerment.
“We are seeing neglect and physical abuse cases related to the drug epidemic. We find that substance abuse leads to more instances of child neglect than physical abuse,” she said. “Substance-abusing parents are typically impaired and don’t provide care for their children or meet their basic needs. Often, the limited money the family has is spent on drugs and therefore, does not go toward rent and food.
“Neglect could be that a child is homeless, there is no food in the home, a young child is left unsupervised, or a child is exposed to situations where they are not safe. We have been fortunate that many kinship families — grandparents, relatives and family friends — have stepped in to be the caretakers of children that otherwise would have entered foster care due to issues related to their parents’ substance abuse.”
As the avalanche of opioid use continues to snowball, the agency is seeing more foster care placements move toward permanency due to parents’ drug abuse and not completing the services required for them to be reunited with their children.
“We are very thankful for the foster families who are willing to open their homes to our children,” Cannon said.
Unfortunately, there is a dearth of licensed foster homes to accommodate the growing number of children entering care, said Angela Sausser, executive director of PCSAO.
“That is one of our major concerns. We have over 15,500 children, but only 7,200 certified foster homes here in Ohio,” Sausser said. “Over past two years, the percentage of new foster homes we’re able to license has only been increasing at a rate of about 2 percent. The need is there, just don’t have enough homes.”
Sausser said there has been an “epic leap” in the number of children entering the system from one year to the next.
“If you compare July 1, 2016, when we had 13,769 kids, to July 1, 2017, when we had about 15,145 in care — just in that one year, we gained over 1,500 kids in care,” she said. “There are more children in foster care than ever before, and we believe that’s largely attributed to the opioid epidemic.”
Despite recent increases in state funding, even more money is needed to address the crisis in Ohio. Lawmakers added $15 million to the $45 million that Ohio provides to match federal and local funds annually, but foster care placement costs alone have risen by an estimated $45 million since 2016, Sausser noted.
Among other things, there has been an increase in the cost of placement because the needs of children of addicts are “extremely challenging,” she added.
“These children have witnessed horrible things in their homes and neighborhoods. Some have been prostituted so the parent or parents can purchase drugs, some have witnessed overdoses or someone dying in front of them. They’ve been extremely traumatized,” Sausser said. “If they have such significant trauma that it leads to intense behavioral health needs, we often find ourselves having to place them in a mental health facility to stabilize them.”
Though reunification of parent and child is ideal, drug addiction often throws a roadblock in the path of this goal, Sausser lamented.
“We are required by federal and state law to do everything to ensure safety in the home so that children don’t have to be removed, or if they do have to be removed, we do everything possible in a 12-month period for their safe return. Addiction impacts these reasonable efforts,” she said.
“One challenge is how long it takes to get into rehab and how long recovery takes. Plus, most people will relapse within one year of recovery. We get close to reunification, then the parent relapses. The challenge of recovery from this particular addiction is that children are staying in foster care longer because the parents have to go through the process again.”
Reach Belinda M. Paschal at email@example.com or (937) 451-3341. The Associated Press contributed to this story.