Seeking Safe Havens: How the Opioid Epidemic has Affected the Foster Care System

Seeking Safe Havens: How the Opioid Epidemic has Affected the Foster Care System

Foster care agencies in Cleveland, Ohio

In 2016, the city of Liverpool, Ohio, released on Facebook a photo taken by its police department of an adult couple who had overdosed in their vehicle while a 4-year-old child sat in the backseat. Last year, a Lorain father, according to an article in cleveland.com, crashed his van while driving with his infant due to an overdose. The mother of the child also was arrested for an overdose later at their home.

These are not isolated incidents; a simple Google search shows similar stories across the U.S.

The opioid crisis has taken its toll on the community — and families are being broken apart. Child welfare agencies across Northeast Ohio are seeing firsthand the impact it has on the family unit when a parent is a substance abuser. Children are likely to be removed from that environment until mom, dad or both recover, or they could be placed permanently.

Summit County Children Services reports  in 2017, 48 percent of removals were due to parental substance abuse and 44 percent were opioid related. Lake County Job and Family Services also reported that from August 2017 to April 2018, 52 percent of children who entered into custody were removed with drug or alcohol usage identified as the primary reason.

“The highest age range of individuals overdosing is parenting age,” says Ann Ream, director of community relations for Summit County Children Services. “When a parent overdoses, our agency is usually called by the police or hospitals to assess safety and make plans for the children. Children from families dealing with addiction are substantially at greater risk for exposure to family tragedy and trauma.”

When a child is removed, agencies work with other family members who are willing to be caregivers. The goal, if possible, is for the children to be reunited with their parents.

“The agency caseworkers work with the parents, family, extended family and supports, as well as with community providers, to help to strengthen the family, ensure the safety of the children and diligently work toward reunification when a child must be removed,” Ream says. “Most children who are removed from their home reunify with their parents or other family members.”

“The potential relative has to be willing to make a long-term commitment to the child because recovery involves numerous attempts at sobriety; it can be a very long journey for parents,” says Lori O’Brien, administrator for Child & Adult Services at Lake County Job and Family Services. “The end game is to make sure children are safe.”

Jennifer Wenderoth, director of social services at The Bair Foundation, a Christian foster care organization in Kent and Cleveland, says it is a traumatic experience for a child to lose a parent or be removed from their family.

“Our kids don’t always understand why they were removed,” she says. “Some of our older children feel that they are the only ones who can help their parent stay sober. It can be difficult to explain to children why they cannot be with their parent(s). When children come into care, they often have to move to a new community, a new school, and make new friends at the same time they are dealing with the loss and separation from their parent(s). This is such a huge adjustment and change for our kids and we need loving foster parents to assist them through this difficult time.”

Ream adds, “Foster parents can help to make a difference in the life of a child. They open their hearts, homes and lives to these children who have been abused and/or neglected and whose parents or family are unable to care for them safely at the time of placement. Foster parents are considered to be part of the ‘team’ that works together for the benefit of children. If reunification efforts are unsuccessful, many foster parents adopt the children placed in their care.”

Multiple children in one family also are being impacted by the opioid epidemic, as agencies are seeing an increase in sibling groups.

“The desire is to always place sibling groups together in the same foster home,” O’Brien says. “However, given the volume of children in the system, most of our homes already have foster children and often do not have enough space to accommodate a sibling group. This is a real struggle.”

With the increase of children in foster care, agencies say more foster parents are needed, including those who can take sibling groups and infants who had prenatal exposure to drugs and suffer withdrawal symptoms.

“Addiction is truly difficult and recovery is a process,” Wenderoth says. “Parents’ time spent in recovery can be much longer and therefore, children might be in foster care longer as a result. There is simply not enough homes to meet the needs of all children needing a safe and stable home. So we need committed foster parents, prepared to stay the course.”

“Foster parents need to realize that children need a more stable home life when they are removed from their caretakers,” O’Brien says, adding that the majority of children in custody in Lake County are age 1 and younger or ages 15-18. “It’s vitally important to have some foster parents who are willing and able to build relationships with birth families. This allows for continued bonding for younger children and assists older children to worry less about their parents.”

In honor of National Foster Care Month, Cuyahoga County Department of Chilren and Family Services is highlighting several events:

May 9: Youth Poetry Slam. Teens in foster care will join other young people at the “Truth Out Loud” Youth Poetry Slam. 6-9 p.m. Cleveland Museum of Art. Seating is limited; click here to register.

May 13: Moms Rock 5K. Mother’s Day race celebrates moms through birth, foster care, and adoption. Walk, run, and kids dash. A portion of the proceeds benefit Hope for the Holidays, a fund that purchases gifts for youth in foster care. 8:30-11:30 a.m. Market Square at Crocker Park. Race details and registration

May 17-19: Foster Parent Training Conference. Foster parents learn from dynamic speakers and trainers and network with other caregivers. Special appreciation dinner held on Friday at 6 p.m. Holiday Inn Cleveland South, 6001 Rockside Road, Independence

About the author

Angela Gartner is the editor at Northeast Ohio Parent Magazine. She previously served as editor for family and general interest magazines in the region. As a journalist, her features and columns have appeared in newspapers and other publications including The News-Herald, Sun Newspapers as well as the Chicago Tribune. She grew up in Northeast Ohio and is a mom of two boys. The whole family is busy each weekend with sports and finding new happenings around the region. She loves reading books, being a board member at the Cleveland Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and talking the family dog, a Scottish Terrier named Jagger, on his walks.

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