Opiate crisis impacting children in Tuscarawas and Holmes counties

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*This story appeared as a three-part series in The Budget’s Local Edition on Sept. 20, Sept. 27 and Oct. 4, 2017.

By Stacey Carmany
The Budget

A 7-year-old and a 14-year-old told a Tuscarawas County Children’s Services caseworker in explicit detail how to shoot up heroin. They called it “Mommy’s medicine” and recounted how their mother would pull over on daily trips to Canton to give herself shots.

Another child was in the home when her father died of a drug overdose last December. “It really affected her,” the girl’s caseworker shared. “She could not grasp that he was gone. She clung to me, not wanting to leave here, not wanting to go to foster care, and she was having severe behavioral issues for months afterward.”

That child was born in jail and had already been taken away from her mother due to drug use,  explained Mandy Prosser, Children’s Services supervisor for the Tuscarawas County Department of Job and Family Services. “She had nobody,” she said. “Opiates and just drug use was all through her life.”

As the opiate crisis continues to ravage the nation, leaving behind in its aftermath a trail of destruction and sorrow, the heartbreaking reality is that it’s often the children of those battling addiction who are impacted the most.

“We are probably averaging at least one if not more calls per day regarding parents who are either overdosing or abusing opiates with their kids in the home,” said Tuscarawas County JFS Director David Haverfield. “It’s become that frequent here.”

In 2015, 77 cases investigated by the agency involved parental opiate use, according to Prosser. In 2016, suspected opiate use resulted in 97 investigations, and just in the first nine months of this year, between January 1 and August 31, agency investigations related to parental opiate use totalled 71. “These are just confirmed opiate cases, so these are ones where we know they’ve been drug tested or arrested for it and it was an opiate,” Prosser added. “We could have more that we don’t know.”

Last year, 69 new children came into foster care as a result of agency investigations, of which 44 were placed with relatives or friends. Of those 69 children, 40 came into the system as a result of parental drug use, including 35 for opiate use specifically.

The Holmes County Department of Job and Family Services has also been seeing the effects of opioid use.  “The vast majority of what we’re doing now is heavily involved in substance abuse,” said Holmes County JFS Director Dan Jackson. “Right now, I’d say that almost 90 percent of the referrals that we’re getting have some level of substance abuse involved. By the time we get through doing our investigations and assessments, it’s probably in the area of over 60 percent of the cases.”

Jackson noted that those cases don’t necessarily involve only opiate use, but typically the use of multiple substances. “Usually there’s alcohol and opiates, or there’s marijuana and opiates,” he shared. “Usually it’s not just one thing.”

As a result, the agency has seen an increase of 10 to 20 percent increase in the number of children removed from homes and placed into foster care.

Jackson noted that one of the challenges his agency has been seeing is that, oftentimes, parental drug use is so heavy that parents are unable remain sober even for supervised visits with their children. “We do administer drug screens here,” he explained. “Just in the short term, here in the last couple of weeks, we submitted six samples and five of them have come back positive.”

Family placement isn’t always an option

Removing children from a home is always a last resort, according to Prosser, and when possible, the agency will explore other options.

“There may be cases where a parent is misusing a prescribed medication, for example. If the children are still being taken care of and are still safe to be in the home, additional protective factors may be put into place,” she explained. “I know a lot of times people will think of Children’s Services and they’ll say we just steal kids, but truly we try to keep families together.”

Protective factors could include things like having another relative stay in the home to look after the children while the parent is getting treatment.

In cases when it is determined that children are not safe in the home due to parental drug use, they are removed are placed temporarily in the care of family members whenever possible, according to Prosser, with the ultimate goal always being to reunify them with their parents.

Of the 69 children entering Tuscarawas County’s foster care system last year, 44 were placed with a relative or friend.

Sadly, placement with a family member is not always possible, however, because either those family members are also using or they simply don’t have the financial resources to care for the children.  

“Philosophically, of course, we always try to put children with family members that are appropriate when we are able to, but we’re also seeing that we have some families that are just having a hard time dealing with this,” Haverfield shared. “They’ve had a member of their family who’s struggled with this addiction for sometimes years, and they may just get worn out of it, and when kids are no longer safe with parents, sometimes relatives aren’t able to take them. They don’t have the financial resources. They just don’t have anything left to give, and it’s been a real strain on our system.”

Haverfield noted that the state does provide some financial assistance to foster families, and  additional resources are also offered by the agency. “We have some resources here at the agency, and we also have a worker who a significant part of her job duties is working with those kids and families to help them out with anything we can help them out with from clothing to referrals for those kids, just doing what we can do to kind of keep kids with family members when we’re able,” he said.

Jackson noted that, unfortunately, many agencies are also running into situations where family placement just isn’t possible, because sometimes even the child’s grandparents are using.  “It’s just a very sad state of things right now,” he said. “Substance abuse is hitting multiple generations. It’s an extra challenge to find people who don’t have those issues.”

Across the state, there has been a big push to recruit additional foster parents, according to Haverford. He noted that while Tuscarawas County already has a tremendous group of foster parents, there remains a need for individuals, couples and families willing to foster children, particularly those with complex needs. That’s because, oftentimes, the children coming from these homes suffer from emotional, behavioral or developmental issues.

“When your judgement as a parent is that distracted, there’s definitely is an impact on the child’s development, and I think research shows that your cognitive development is poorer, so you’re not doing as well in school the way you should or the way you could, up to your full potential,” Jackson explained. “And probably emotionally. You have a hard time trusting. You have a hard time making good decisions because it’s never been modeled for you. It’s a cycle, and just like everything else, it can become a negative cycle if you don’t have a positive role model.”

Tuscarawas County JFS has seen several cases where a child’s issues are so severe that they can’t be placed in a traditional foster home and require placement in a specialized facility. The cost to place a child in one of these facilities is about $350 per day, according to Haverfield.  “[That] is really hitting us in terms of cost,” Haverfield shared. “It’s becoming challenging for us. It’s just everywhere right now, and responding to it has been a challenge.”

While it did receive a bump in state funding for the first time in many years, Haverfield noted that Ohio still ranks 50th in the nation in terms of state support. Currently, the cost to run the county foster care system is over $2 million per year, which is funded by the Tuscarawas County Commissioners. “It’s been a hit for the county as well,” he stated. “We’re seeing other cuts to the county income from the state, so it’s been a big hit for them. It’s really just trying to maximize what we have and make the best decisions we can.”

Treatment and support for families

Both local JFS agencies work to connect parents with the necessary supports to get their lives back on track and ultimately regain custody of their children. “We’re trying to intervene as early as we possibly can when we get information that somebody might be using an opiate,” Haverfield said. “We try to get them to treatment as quickly as possible.”

Tuscarawas County JFS refers parents to local agencies for drug and alcohol treatment as much as possible, but will sometimes have to look elsewhere, for instance, when the parent has already been through those programs.

The agency also works to connect parents and their children with in-home counseling and parent mentoring services, however, Prosser noted there is typically a lengthy waitlist for these services. “There’s a humongous wait list now because of all the referrals,” she said. “There’s nothing worse than having to tell a family they have to wait for services.”

“The one that I’m working with now, the kid, he’s 6 years old and he is greatly affected because he lost his dad last year to an overdose and he clearly blamed his mom,” one caseworker shared. “It’s explosive anger and hurt and you can see all the emotions going through his little 6-year-old body, and it’s like, ‘How do I get you the help quickly? We need something soon. It might not be the home-based counseling, but maybe individual counseling or something in the school, at the very least a parent mentor to help support Mom in dealing with his behaviors.’”

Holmes County JFS works closely with the Mental Health Recovery Board of Wayne and Holmes Counties to secure treatment for parents struggling with substance use. Treatment is facilitated through the board’s agency partners Anazao, The Counseling Center and OneEighty.

The board has allocated a third of its budget for the current fiscal year, for drug and alcohol treatment in Holmes County, according to Executive Director Judy Wortham Wood.

Reporting parental drug abuse

If you believe a child is being neglected or is unsafe in the home due to parental drug abuse, call 330-339-7791 in Tuscarawas County or 330-674-1111 in Holmes County.

If you see something you’re concerned about, step up and make a phone call,” Haverfield said. “With these situations, the earlier we can get involved and get resources in place to kind of help people overcome that addiction before it becomes life altering, because that’s the thing we see with the opiates is that it takes over their whole life. They lose the ability to do basic things they need to do like take care of themselves, let alone their children.”