Children Services Agencies Say Kids, Social Workers Are Suffering In Opioid Epidemic

Jan 19, 2017

Ohio leads the nation in opiate overdose deaths, with an average of eight people dying each day last year. And thousands more are addicted, and in many cases, those addicts have families. On this week's "The State of Ohio", two children services directors share stories from the front lines of this crisis.

In the last seven years, the number of children taken into custody by children services agencies in Ohio soared by nearly 20 percent, from just under 12,000 kids in 2009 to nearly 14,000 kids in 2015. Parental drug use was involved with half of children taken into custody last year. Robin Reese heads Lucas County Children Services in Toledo, and said kids are staying in the system longer than ever. “I have been in this business for 33 years,” she said. “And I’ve never seen any addiction – and we’ve gone through many of them – where parents lose, they just lose not the ability but the will to want to get their kids back. They’re driven by trying to get the drug.”

Dr. Lorra Fuller heads Scioto County Children Services – at the epicenter of the state’s opioid epidemic. Her agency took in twice as many drug exposed infants last year than the previous year. “That means that these babies are staying in care longer, have greater needs, and it’s difficult to find placement for these babies,” Fuller said. “We rely on relatives a lot, which is kinship placement, but we also rely on our foster parents.”

Fuller says the effects of drug exposure on babies can be long-lasting, but they’re mostly physical. Older kids who’ve lived through their parents’ drug addiction or seen them overdose and die remember – and they’re traumatized, angry and often need mental health treatment. Reese says sometimes they’ve been trained to administer overdose antidotes such as Narcan to their parents, and are taking on very adult roles in their homes. “We’re seeing more kids that are ‘parentified’. They’re caring for their sisters and brothers. And not having enough resources and caregivers – you don’t want to have split those kids up,” Reese said. “But they’re coming in so fast, by the time we get folks through the certification process, the ink is barely dry before we’re calling them.”

And the shattering impact of the crisis hits children services workers too – they’re often the first responders on these scenes, and many don’t stay on the job long, because of the low pay and the horrors that they see. Fuller talks of a worker who’s haunted by a man who beat his toddler son till his wife agreed to get him more drugs. Reese remembers a story from Christmastime.  “We were working on a reunification and one of the families, the mother overdosed and died. And her kids were having extended visits with her,” Reese said. “I can’t even explain to you how traumatized the staff were to have to deliver that message to the kids when they thought they were going to be home for the holidays.”

At the same time the crisis has been escalating, state funding has been falling. The Public Children Services Association of Ohio reports state funding has plummeted by $93 million since 2009 – that’s 17%. And that group says the state is dead last in the nation. Fuller said she’s worried.  “Unless they do something, it’s only going to get worse. These children are going to be the future of Ohio,” Fuller said. “These children are being traumatized, and if we are not there to be able to provide the care that they need, and care in general encompassing everything – mental health needs, just their social needs in general – if we’re not there and we’re not there to do that, what is going to be the future of Ohio?”

Reese said all the talk around this crisis of treatment for addicts, punishment for dealers and prevention for those who haven’t tried drugs has left these kids out. “Children are the silent victims. People focus in on making the adults healthy, and they don’t really look at the child part.”

About half of children services agencies are also supported by levies at the local level, and those which aren’t have to rely on counties to provide more funds. The agencies say in the upcoming budget – which Gov. John Kasich has warned will be tough – they’re hoping to be restored to funding levels from seven years ago, when the caseloads started to rise dramatically.