Opiate crisis hurting our children the most


Weirofficialphoto2016-200pxWe are asked a lot about the opiate crisis gripping our community. How does it play out in child welfare?

Heroin has hit our “business” hard. Abuse of opiate-based painkillers such as Vicodin and OxyContin is also a problem.

A 2014 study by the Public Children Service Association of Ohio found some startling facts about the 86,000 child welfare cases that enter the Ohio system each year:

  • Child welfare cases involving parents abusing heroin, cocaine of both had climbed to 50 percent of all cases.
  • 70 percent of children age 1 or younger placed in the child welfare system are there because their parents are using heroin or cocaine.
  • Nearly 14,000 children had been placed in out-of-home care in 2015, a 20% increase since 2009.
  • The estimated cost of just foster care for children whose parents are addicted to opiates is $45 million annually.

To date, we haven’t seen additional money to deal with this crisis. In Hamilton County, where we receive only 3 percent of our child welfare funding from the state of Ohio – Ohio ranks last in the nation in funding child welfare – we rely on a local levy.

That local levy, which will be voted on in November, has not increased since 1996 and brings in about $40 million a year. We use all of those dollars to achieve matching dollars from the federal government, so passage of the levy means more than $80 million we can use to help serve children caught up in this community epidemic.

I can tell you that parents involved in opiate addiction seem to have a tougher time than other types of addicts in breaking the habit. They require more intensive and longer treatment, often pushing reunification efforts up against mandated timelines. This means they are more likely to permanently lose custody of their children, who are often the reason the parent is trying to get clean.

We are doing everything we can on our front to deal with this crisis, but the solutions are not simple or inexpensive. And the stories are heartbreaking. Families are being ripped apart. Parents, who under normal circumstances would be loving and committed to their children are choosing drugs over their children — you can only imagine the emotional damage this does to a son or daughter whose only hope is for their parents to get clean so they can resume their happy family life. Removing them from the only caretaker they have ever known does even more damage.

Child welfare agencies take a lot of criticism. Either we leave children too long or remove them too soon. Every decision can literally be a life or death decision, and we are under an intense spotlight.

Safety decisions are never easy. We work very hard with all who are involved in decision making – the Juvenile Court, prosecutor’s office, representatives for the children, parents, foster parents, therapists and many others – to make the best decisions for children and families.

But, ultimately, we are dealing with a very vulnerable population of children surrounded by very vulnerable, and, at times, volatile adults. A heroin addict often has numerous people in and out of their children’s lives, any one of whom could harm the child. A heroin addict can also get clean, be doing quite well with their children for an extended period of time and relapse in a second, placing their children in harm’s way. What was the right decision on Tuesday might be the wrong decision on Friday.

It is easy to pass judgment when you do not work in the field or have little relevant, current experience. I know from working with some of the top urban child welfare leaders in the nation that we all face armchair quarterbacking as we tackle the same problems. It does not deter us — we continue our work to bring together the experts in our community – child welfare workers, legal teams, providers, doctors, mental health and addiction counselors, foster parents and, most importantly, parents and children — to improve the systems of care in our community.

We are facing one of the most insidious health and safety epidemics of my 23 years in child welfare. It is more important than ever that we have a culture of safety in our work. We work with people both locally and nationally to help develop that culture and increase our ability to protect children. We will never be perfect, but we will always strive to be better.

by Jane Prendergast

Filed Under: From the Director

Tagged: child abuse, Child Welfare, Children's Services, hamilton county department of job and family services, hamilton county job and family services, heroin, moira weir, neglect, pcsao, public children service association of ohio