A potential consequence of the area’s heroin crisis is that children are enduring longer stays in foster care because unification efforts with their families have failed, interviews with child welfare experts and data compiled by this newspaper suggest.
The impacts from these placements could be both harmful and long-lasting, officials say, because children who remain in foster care for longer periods are more likely to change homes multiple times, which disrupts friendships, relationships, schooling and other factors of stability.
“There is significant evidence to support the fact that children that spend long periods of time in foster care, with multiple placements do not have good outcomes into adulthood,” said William Morrison, director of Butler County Children Services.
In 2015, children in Butler County on average spent 19 months in foster care, up from 10 months in 2012, which officials attribute to addiction issues. Other counties have had similar increases.
Foster care is a lifeline for many children and an escape from an unsafe environment, but is not intended to serve as a long-term solution. Yet as of March 1, 732 children in Ohio — including 91 in the Miami Valley — had been in foster care more than five years.
The area’s opiate epidemic is most likely responsible for longer stays because many drug-addicted parents will not stick with treatment, jeopardizing reunification efforts, said Pam Meermans, deputy director of the Clark County Department of Job and Family Services.
Morrison also blamed escalating drug problems for longer stays in his county. “The heroin epidemic has greatly affected our average period of time in foster care as many addicts fail in treatment multiple times,” he said.
Even when drug use is not the primary reason children are removed, it may be an underlying factor. Many children are removed from their homes because of abuse, neglect and abandonment, which often stems from their parents’ drug or alcohol consumption, officials say.
Some counties are seeing younger children being placed in out-of-home care, data compiled by the newspaper shows.
In Greene County, youth placed in foster care typically were between the ages of 12 and 18 in 2007. By 2013, the age distribution was more evenly split between older kids and children 5 and younger, said Beth Rubin, director of the Greene County Department of Job and Family Services.
Reunification not always possible
Child welfare advocates try to reunify children with family members when possible, though it happens within a year in fewer than half the cases, the data shows.
In 2013, about 891 children entered foster care in Butler, Clark, Champaign, Greene, Miami, Montgomery and Warren counties. About 42.6 percent of those children achieved permanency within 12 months, meaning they were reunited with their parents, discharged to kin, adopted or entrusted to legal guardians.
Of the children who entered care in 2012, 45.5 percent were discharged to permanency within 12 months, the data shows.
By law, parental rights typically cannot be terminated until a child has been in out-of-home care for 12 months of a 22-month period.
Finding permanent homes is almost always more difficult if the child has spent a long time in foster care, Rubin said.
Other factors — such as age of the child, number of previous placements and mental or behavioral health issues — also play a role, she said.
Across the region, many kids come into care because they were born to mothers addicted to drugs or alcohol. Some too are placed into care because their parents died of drug overdoses.
“We have a lot of cases where two parents are in the household and they are both drug-addicted,” said Jewell Good, assistant director of Montgomery County Children Services. “You can’t look at the other parent as a potential placement resource because they are together shooting heroin.”
With so many kids needing permanent homes, the child welfare system depends on people like Amy Bobbitt of West Milton.
Bobbitt, 47, has adopted 11 children, eight of whom live at home with her today.
The eight children range in age from 3 to 16.
Three-year-old Bronson, who Bobbitt adopted in 2014, was born addicted to opiates and spent 21 days in a neonatal intensive-care unit. Another child was born addicted to crack, and another to cocaine.
Life at the Bobbitt house can be crowded and noisy, and her days can be a blur of athletic practices, school work, chores and family activities. The monthly grocery bill can be $1,500.
“I am on the go all the time,” she said. “And there’s never enough room.”
Bobbitt said children placed in the foster care system come from chaotic and harmful environments and they desperately need stability and loving caregivers.
Her 16-year-old daughter, Beyonce, recalls bursting into tears as a young girl when she was returned to her biological parents.
Beyonce, who was about 3 at the time, had bonded with Bobbitt, her then-foster mom, and wanted to stay in the more stable environment.
She and her two brothers were returned to their parents but placed back into foster care soon after. Bobbitt then adopted the sibling group.
Bobbitt said she’s interested in adopting another child who is 11 and has been in 11 different foster homes and has been in nine different schools.
She figures the stability she can give them is much more than they have now.
“Imagine you are a seven-year-old kid and you have no idea tomorrow where you’re going to be,” she said. “It’s really hard for kids.”
A positive trend
While local agencies face significant obstacles to quick reunification, they are getting better at finding permanent homes for kids who’ve been in the system for more than a year.
Collectively, agencies in the seven-county region have seen permanency achievement increase for children in care for 12 and 23 months.
And nearly 35 percent of local children in care for more than two years achieved permanency by the end of 2015. That’s 6 percentage points higher than in early 2014.
In Clark County, foster parents are encouraged to be dually licensed as foster and adoptive homes — a change that has resulted in more foster parents adopting the children placed in their care. Officials say about 90 percent of the children who are not reunited with their parents or placed with relatives are adopted by their foster parents.
Local agencies also work with Wendy’s Wonderful Kids recruiters, who focus on children who tend to be older, have had multiple foster placements and who have been in the system for years.
Montgomery County has a permanency roundtable for youth in care 17 months or longer that provides structured case consultation assistance that greatly involves the input of the children, said Tim Beasley, the coordinator of permanency planning.
A team of people — including the children, their caseworkers and supervisors and anyone else the kids want at the table — identify goals and develop an action plan to meet the youth’s needs and connect them with a permanent support system, Beasley said. The program was implemented around June 2014.
The program puts foster children in charge of determining their futures, and even children who age out of foster care have adults they can rely on for support and guidance, he said.
Permanency roundtables have helped prevent children from lingering in care and aging out without a plan, said Good, the assistant director.
“We want our kids not to be those statistics that end up in prison or homeless on the streets,” she said. “We want to make sure our kids are really taken care of.”