Opioid Orphans

Published 9:03 am Monday, September 11, 2017

Children end up in foster care because of parental drug use

There are the well-publicized scenes of the opioid problem in our region — the overdoses in public places, the cost of rehabilitating the addicted, EMS workers now carrying a can of Narcan so they can save their patient from yet another overdose.

What is overlooked in that many of these addicts have children and they are being neglected as their parents take drugs and nod off.

It is creating what some pundits call “opiate orphans,” children who have had parents die from drugs like heroin and fentanyl or just be abandoned as their parents spend their days getting high.

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Once that is discovered, authorities try to put kids with other relatives who can take care of them. If there isn’t such a person, the children end up being in foster care.

The county now has dozens of children in its care and it is costing $1.49 million a year.

“In Lawrence County, we have 70 kids in our custody,” said Rich Blankenship, the assistant director at the Lawrence County Job and Family Services. “The large majority is a result of drug-related offense against their parents and/or their guardian.”

He said the number has risen over the years because of the opioid drug problem that is rampant in this area.

He said a decade ago, they may have had months when they had more than 70 kids in foster care but it wasn’t drug related, rather it was other issues such as neglect or abuse. The state made it a priority to reduce the number of children in foster care by placing them with responsible relatives. Sometimes, that isn’t possibility.

“We try to find different avenues rather than foster care,” Blankenship said. “But, now, with the drug issue, finding a suitable relative is difficult, so we have to resort to foster care.”

And more children being taken out of family situations and into foster care, the cost to the county has risen.

“At my agency, we spend, in one day, $4,089 to cover the costs of those 70 children in foster care,” Blankenship said. Most of the children are in foster homes and the county pays between $25-$55 a day for that. Kids with mental, physical or behavioral issues end up in long-term care at a residential center, and that can cost up to $250 a day per child. Although

Blankenship said that he is talking to the residential treatment homes to see if the county can get the rate reduced since it is long-term commitment.

Blankenship said that the state has allocated an additional $100,000 to counties this year “due to the fact that foster care has risen so much due to the opioid problem.”

“$100,000 sounds like a lot, but when we’re paying over $4,000 a day, it doesn’t last long,” he said.

Because J&FS doesn’t get enough state funds to cover the cost of foster care, they have to move funds to cover the $1.49 million in costs.

Blankenship said that the social workers are doing their best to re-unify families and children “when at all possible.”

“Our main concern is to provide a safe environment for the children. And to work with the families to provide services to them so they can get back with their kids,” he said. “But sometimes, that doesn’t happen. It’s unfortunate, but sometimes it just doesn’t work out.”

Blankenship said that many people don’t understand it, but the state does want to reunite kids with their families “but only if they meet all the requirements” which can include passing drug tests, getting a job, and getting stable housing. “They have to go through all that to get their kids back. And some of them do and then we have a legal obligation to return them to their home.”

Blankenship said there are about 14 kids who are going through the adoption process, which will lower the overall number, but only for a while.

“We are going to get other kids into foster care, it is inevitable, unfortunately,” he said.

Lawrence County uses agencies like NECCO for foster care.

“We used to have a bunch of foster parents, but it dwindled down for whatever reason,” Blankenship said. “We only have a couple of families through our agency, so we have to reach out to NECCO and other agencies. Being a foster parent is not an easy job.”

Because of the lack of enough foster parents in the wake of the drug epidemic, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine announced in August that the state was making some changes, including expediting background checks and grants to child welfare agencies to help recruit more foster families.

DeWine said, in Ohio, there are more than 15,000 in the foster care system, up 3,000 from just seven years ago. But there are just 7,200 foster families to take care of kids.

“There is a growing chasm between the number of available foster families and the increasing number of children who enter the child welfare system because one or both parents are drug addicts,” DeWine said.

Blankenship said that Lawrence County is one of the counties that are qualified for the START grant, but there are a number of issues that need to be worked out before it is implemented.

“It’s a new grant and there are some issues,” he said. “But we are working with the Attorney General’s Office and other counties to get it settled.”

In the end, the safety of the children is the main concern.

“Sometimes, these kids get left behind, and that is what we are trying to avoid,” Blankenship said. “We have very good caseworkers who do a very good job. We just want all the children to be safe.”