Siblings TJ, 5, and Lilly, 3, were adopted together after their relatives, Alicia and Thomas Gobert, didn’t want to see them separated.
“They will have that bond,” says Alicia Gobert, their adoptive mother. “They needed each other. I wanted to keep them in the family. I figured if I did, (their mother) could still see them.”
Sadly, the children won’t have that opportunity. Their mother, who struggled with heroin addiction, died of an overdose in 2017.
“It’s a sickness — she loved them and wanted them, but she couldn’t fight that demon that she had,” Gobert says.
Adopting the children, who originally were placed with another relative before the Goberts volunteered to take them, provides something the children didn’t have before: stability
“It was the best thing that we have ever done,” Gobert says. “You are giving these children a life they can live. They can have a life and not be neglected.”
This case is just one story of children who could have been casualties of the opioid epidemic. While parents who abuse opioids can be a factor for why kids enter into the foster care system, there also is an indication of a broader drug crisis.
According to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services officials, “the number of kids currently in foster care in the state as of Oct. 1, 2018 is 15,867 — since Ohio’s fiscal year 2017 to 2018, the agency has seen a 15 percent increase in children in care where a removal reason was related to substance abuse.”
And it doesn’t just impact one child, but affects entire sibling groups in the case of some families.
Substance abuse can be in many forms — opioids, alcohol, etc. — which can lead to child neglect and abuse, parent incarceration and other issues.
Ann Ream, director of community relations for Summit County Children Services, says children who live in families where substance abuse is an issue experience traumatic life events that have long-term negative consequences.
“Children we serve have witnessed overdoses and deaths of family members,” Ream says. “They witness criminal activity and incarceration of parents. They are at high-risk for child abuse and neglect. Children who experience traumatic life events are at much greater risk for poor physical and mental health in their adult lives. The cost for the long-term needs of children damaged by the opioid epidemic is unmeasurable.”
In 2017, the agency had 417 child removals that were due to parental substance abuse, including 43 sibling groups due to parental opioid use.
“Often, a parent’s substance use/abuse will lead to a child/children taking on a parenting role and caring for younger siblings,” says Jennifer Wenderoth, director of social services at The Bair Foundation, a Christian foster care organization in Kent and Cleveland. “It can be a difficult transition for the parenting child to transition to the role of child or sibling when placed in foster care. Parentified children can also feel the need to be the caregiver for their substance using parent and feel they are the only one that can help their parent.”
It also affects children in the womb, as infants are being born with drug exposure.
Beverly Torres, Senior Manager for Permanency Support, Cuyahoga County Division of Children and Family Services, says in the last five years, there’s been a 75 percent increase in children born who are drug exposed.
“In terms of children in the custody of Lake County, there tends to be a lot of infants who are exposed to drugs in utero, resulting in the child experiencing withdrawal symptoms shortly after birth,” says Lori O’Brien, administrator for Children & Adult Services at Lake County Job and Family Services. “Children who experience withdrawal symptoms are often more difficult to care for and console.”
Sibling Groups Growing
Torres says the agency often is asked what counts as a sibling.
“Siblings include full, half, step, adoptive or fictive siblings,” she says. “Fictive siblings are children or adults who have formed a relationship with one another, but who are not necessarily blood-related.”
For agencies in Summit and Cuyahoga counties, there is an increase in sibling groups, with ages ranging from infant to teens.
Torres says in Cuyahoga County, they are seeing increased numbers of larger sibling groups, such as four or five children in one family.
“There are currently 2,455 children in care — 64 percent of those, or 1,581 children, have a sibling in care,” she says. “These numbers reflect all children in care that come to us as a result of abuse and neglect. There are many factors that can lead to abuse and neglect, including mental health issues,
domestic violence, substance abuse (including opioids), and other issues.”
“Out of 763 children in agency (Summit County) custody, 490 children are a part of a sibling group,” Ream says. “Over 80 percent of children in agency custody are placed with at least one sibling and over 56 percent are a part of a large sibling group of three or more children.”
While Lake County hasn’t seen an increase in these groups, O’Brien says that currently, 11 sibling groups make up one third of the children in custody.
“These children range from a set of twins who are 3 months of age to 16 years of age, but 58 percent of the siblings in custody are 5 or younger,” she says. “The largest sibling group is comprised of five children.”
Parent separation is traumatic, but when you add losing siblings, too, it is even more difficult.
“Friends, spouses and significant people enter your life, but it is rare that any relationship is longer than a sibling relationship,” O’Brien says. “Siblings potentially offer support long after becoming an adult and emancipating from the parent or caretaker.”
The agencies’ goal is to keep siblings together, but sometimes that is not possible.
“It’s unfortunate when siblings must be separated,” O’Brien says. “Typically, it is a result of a safety threat where one sibling needs to be protected from another. Sadly, sometimes, it is a result of there being no alternative placement that can accommodate the entire sibling group.”
Ream adds, “Not only is there a shortage of foster families, but the pool becomes even smaller for those that have the ability to adopt large sibling groups due to many factors including the age of the children, needs of the children, ability to meet the needs of multiple children at once, etc.”
The agencies’ goal is to not separate these groups of kids.
“Even if they have to be separated in the short term, our goal is to find permanent placement for siblings together,” Torres says.
Agency officials in Cuyahoga, Summit and Lake counties say sibling groups are being placed and adopted.
“Lake County has been successful in sibling adoptions,” O’Brien says. “In the last two years, every sibling group available has been adopted. There have been some difficulties along the way, but the agency works hard to remove potential barriers for families and fully supports the importance of siblings being together with a forever family.”
Ream says in Summit County, “Most sibling groups remain placed together. In 2017, there were 64 adoptions with all siblings being adopted together or as a partial sibling group.”
“Families come to SCCS with the desire to grow their family through adoption and typically know the number of children they would like to adopt,” Ream says. “Most families are shocked to hear we have siblings groups of three or more children in a family.”
In the Family
Relatives of children in foster care are often the first ones asked about placement.
“It is important to try to keep children with their families,” O’Brien says. ”When faced with a child coming into foster care, social workers ask birth parents for contact information on grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins or individuals who have significant relationships with the children to minimize the trauma removal from the family unit brings for children.”
Ream says in Summit County, 40 percent of these children are placed in relative care.
For the Goberts, there was no question to keep siblings TJ and Lilly together and in the family.
“It was hard at first, but I got adjusted,” Alicia Gobert says. “I didn’t want to see them separated.”
They are still dealing with issues, such as behavior stemming from drug exposure, but Gobert says they are fighting through it.
“That’s the worst part, (but) it’s something you deal with — you love them and want to get them help.”
Sue Ellen Shepherd and her husband Raymond, of Lorain County, first adopted their sister-in-law’s niece and nephew.
However, their hearts were open to help more kids in need. They have nine children — three sibling groups, with ages ranging from 3 to 16 years old.
“We weren’t expecting to adopt that many,” Sue Ellen Shepherd says. “Once (the kids) came (into our home), they took over our heartstrings and we never cut the ties.”
She says that they have a good support system with help from the outside (resources), their church and family members.
With most of the children, Shepherd says exposure to drugs had been part of their lives.
“The impact is a lot more devastating than people think — the fact that it’s not just one child, but three or four siblings,” she says. “I don’t think the goal of the foster care system is to separate a child from a parent, but to get them good support systems and help a family out when they are in trouble. The problem is it’s harder to reunify (when drugs are involved).”
Foster and adoptive families like the Shepherds provide love, safety and stability for these children. The past also is important to the family and to the child as a whole.
“There is still hope,” she adds, explaining that they have talked to the birth parents of the children and are willing to be open as long as it’s safe and in the best interest of
the child. “There can be a relationship, but the drugs do have to go away.”
In fact, two of their children currently are in communication with their birth mother.
“We talked to them about the different dynamics of a family, that people come in and out of our lives,” Shepherd says. “Families aren’t perfect, they need to be there for each other in some sense. That way the child can move on in a better state of mind.”
Many agencies say the past experiences of children in these groups could present obstacles for placement in a new home.
“It can be challenging for foster and adoptive families to cope with the different ways children experience trauma,”
Torres says. “What they need is stability — to know you will stick around through thick and thin. They also need individualized care based on their specific needs. Siblings can be very different from each other; the best way to make sure they stay together is to understand and accommodate their different needs.”
Families like the Judys and Smiths wanted to provide children in foster care who need a home an opportunity to live life in a safe and comfortable environment.
“We didn’t go into this looking for sibling adoption,” says Michael Judy, of Mentor, who, along with his wife Veronique Berthet-Judy adopted two children. “I see it now, they are so close and I can’t imagine them being apart. I couldn’t conceive any other way — not having these two wonderful girls.”
Shortly after completing all the requirements to become foster parents, the couple was called to take the two girls — a newborn and a 1-year-old — in an emergency placement, to which they said yes. They quickly rushed to get supplies for the children, including a bassinet.
“We didn’t think it was going to be so fast,” Veronique says, adding they weren’t expecting two children right away.
The girls, each with some challenges due to parental substance abuse, were adopted by the Judy family in May 2018.
Veronique says it’s definitely more challenging raising two children, but she and her husband are providing them with simple, everyday things.
“It doesn’t have to be extraordinary — just a normal, structured life,” she says. “To live in a healthy environment, so they can be productive and have self-esteem.”
Having the girls grow up together is important to the couple.
“It helps them know who they are when they grow up,” she says. “We are not hiding anything from them. It gives them a sense of well-being that they can relate to someone.”
Kirsten Smith says she and her husband Josh knew the odds were already stacked against kids in foster care — and adopting siblings felt right to the couple.
“They can maintain their strong sibling connection,” Kirsten Smith says. “They don’t have that pain of separation.”
The Smiths, who live in Summit County, have adopted nine children — two sibling groups of six children and three children each — whose ages range from 17 to 2 years old.
The newest edition, twins who will turn 3 in February, had four other siblings who were adopted by the couple.
“There are a million reasons to say no, but it only takes one to say yes,” Kirsten Smith says about making the decision to adopt siblings.
“I just know they are safe and they are together,” she says. “They don’t have to worry about where their brothers and sisters are and if they have the proper care.”
The couple admits it’s not easy, but they have the support of each other, as well as close friends and family.
“People (looking to adopt sibling groups) need to set aside their preference or comfort level in order to help children that need a family,” she says. “Those kids have a chance to have a great life and in the long run, it’s worth it.”
The Bair Foundation — www.bair.org
Cuyahoga County Job and Family Services — Click here to find detailed information about the foster and adoption process.
Lake County Job and Family Services — lakecountyohio.gov/lcojfs
Summit County Children’s Services — www.summitkids.org
Renewal Levy with Increase on the Nov. 6 Ballot for Summit County Children Services
Since 2012, there has been a 36 percent increase in the number of children in custody, due in large part to the opioid crisis. Summit County Children Services serves 1 in 12 children in Summit County. SCCS receives nearly 11,000 calls each year, and serve as the “First Responders” to reports of child abuse and neglect. SCCS believes in family preservation and maintaining children in their own homes whenever possible. When children cannot remain in their own homes, placement with family is the first priority to provide children a safe and stable environment until reunification can occur.
The issue on the ballot will be the renewal of a current 2.25 mill levy with a 1 mill increase. SCCS has not requested an increase to the levy in 30 years, and revenue for SCCS has decreased by over $58.6 million since 2008. The levy provides for approximately 60 percent of the agency’s operating budget. The 1 mill increase will cost the owner of a $100,000 home approximately $35 a year — that is less than 10 cents a day. The total levy will cost the owner of a $100,000 home less than $100 per year.
If the increase of the current levy millage does not pass, SCCS would be required to cut 34 percent of staff and 20 percent of the budget.
To learn more about the levy, visit supportsummitkids.org