Foster care report: ‘Many of these kids watched their parents overdose or die’

Credit: Chris Stewart

Credit: Chris Stewart

The number of Ohio children neglected because of parental drug use is swelling foster care rolls and straining county children services agency budgets, according to a new report.

A thousand more children are spending this holiday season in foster care than in 2016, an analysis by the Public Children Services Association of Ohio (PCSAO) shows.

“Many of these kids watched their parents overdose or die,” said Angela Sausser, PCSAO executive director. “They are missing milestones with their families such as birthday parties and ringing in the New Year, and many are staying in care longer due to their parents’ relapsing.”

On July 1, 2013, there were 12,654 children in agency custody statewide. The number reached 15,145 this July and in October surpassed 15,500, according to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.

If the opioid epidemic continues at its current rate, the report projects the number of Ohio children in foster care will climb to more than 20,000 by 2020.

The costs could also increase dramatically.

This year, the costs of providing foster care in the state reached $375 million. An additional $175 million may be needed within three years to fund child placement costs, according to state and PCSAO calculations. More than half the state’s children services funding in Ohio comes from dedicated county levies and local government funds.

Half of all children taken into protective custody in 2015 had a parent who used drugs, the study found. Parental opioid use was a factor in 28 percent of children removed from homes in 2015 by children services agencies, according to a survey of 78 Ohio children services agencies.

Christie and Brian Looney became foster parents in 2015. That March, they soon experienced how the opioid epidemic could victimize the most innocent — a newborn boy put in their care had been exposed to drugs in the womb.

“We thought having five children of our own, we were pretty good with babies and knew what to expect,” said Christie Looney. “He brought challenges we never saw coming.”

The baby’s painful withdrawal from opioids continued in the Looneys’ Huber Heights home over the next months. The baby, with neonatal abstinence syndrome, was inconsolable, spit up often and suffered from tremors, she said.

The baby was eventually reunified with his birth mother, who showed authorities her drug use was no longer a threat to the child.

Undeterred, the Looneys fostered another boy and a girl they are currently in the process of adopting.

Montgomery County has about 650 children in care each day, according to Montgomery County Children Services.

In Clark County, the number of children in custody dropped from 107 to 97 in the past two years. But the number of children the agency has placed with kinship caregivers has climbed steadily, now at 135, said Pam Meermans, Clark County Job and Family Services deputy director.

“Our numbers are definitely going up, and they are definitely related to the opioid epidemic,” Meermans said. “More parents are addicted.”

Most area children services agencies reported a higher-than-state average 28 percent of children taken into custody in 2015 with parents who used of opioids. Miami County at 17 percent was the only area county below the state average for parental opioid use. Other area counties include: Butler, 38 percent; Champaign, 43 percent; Clark, 31 percent; Greene, 39 percent; Montgomery, 33 percent; Preble, 38 percent; and Warren, 36 percent.

Clark County’s 135 kinship cases aren’t included in the report’s custody cases, but each still requires agency resources, Meermans said.

“We still work the case, we still provide services, just as we would if we had custody,” she said.

Due to a lack of foster homes, agencies are also forced to spend more money to place children in their custody, Meermans said.

“We are running out of places to put children,” she said. “And when you cannot find an appropriate placement in a foster home, many of these children end up in high-cost, residential treatment care, far from home, at a very high dollar rate.”

Brian Looney said there remains a need for foster families due to the children ensnared in the opioid crisis.

“It’s very common and very sad,” he said “Like a lot of foster children, they are either born with difficulties or coming out of a difficult situation, hence the need of foster families. It’s through no fault of their own. They are babies. They are kids. They just need love and support and nurturing.”

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