Opioid crisis strains foster system

Kids pried from homes need care

Tribune Chronicle / Renee Fox Robyn and Eli Trinkle of Cortland are all smiles after signing papers Friday at Trumbull County Children Services to adopt two siblings they fostered. The couple fostered many children before they adopted because they wanted to do something to help their community as they went through the adoption process.

She was first roused awake at 2:30 a.m. by a call seeking an emergency placement for a child. Ninety minutes later, it was a storm of texts telling of a problem at a foster home.

Now, after a fitful night and a morning spent furiously juggling 15 foster cases, Rachael Stark is splashed with coffee and running late for a meeting when her phone rings with yet another request.

A child welfare worker is on the line telling of three siblings in need of a foster family. Without a pause, Stark offers a familiar line sapped with resignation.

“I’ve got no one,” she says somberly.

Across the U.S., soaring use of heroin and other opioids has sent tens of thousands of kids flooding into the foster care system — creating a generation of children abandoned by addicted parents, orphaned by fatal overdoses and torn from families by authorities fearful of leaving them in drug-addled chaos.

New foster care cases involving parents who are using drugs have hit the highest point in more than three decades of record-keeping, accounting for 92,000 children entering the system in 2016, according to just-released data by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The crisis is so severe — with a 32 percent spike in drug-related cases from 2012 to 2016 — it reversed a trend that had the foster care system shrinking in size over the preceding decade. All told, about 274,000 children entered foster care in the U.S. last year. A total of 437,000 children were in the system as of Sept. 30, 2016.

Trumbull County cases soar

In Trumbull County, calls for abuse and neglect are higher so far in 2017 than they were in 2016, and there are fewer foster families available to take kids who need care outside of their families, said Tim Schaffner, executive director of Trumbull County Children Services.

There were 101 foster families in 2014, 92 in 2015 and 89 families in 2016, according to the agency’s annual reports. There are now 70, Schaffner said.

Between 2013 and 2015, the number of kids in the agency’s care soared by 40 percent. And the cause? The opioid crisis, Schaffner said.

“Our kids in custody continue to go up. Our referrals go up. Abuse and neglect calls are up,” Schaffner said. “We are not surprised by this trend, we have been seeing it for a while.”

The agency provided services to 4,115 children in 2016, compared to 3,844 in 2014, according to the agency’s annual report. And in 2016, the county agency processed 1,433 referrals for child maltreatment in cases of abuse, neglect, dependency and others, compared to 1,260 in 2014.

Stacy Ferencik, the agency’s foster parent recruiter — a position created in 2015 — said the data tells her to brace for even larger increases.

“Overdose deaths are up. That directly affects us,” Schaffner said.

There have been a record-breaking more than 150 overdose deaths in Trumbull County this year, up from 107 last year, according to data from the Trumbull County Coroner’s Office.

“There is a correlation. Our emergency teams get busier. The calls increase. But more calls don’t bother us because our goal is for people to never question whether they should call us or not. The more calls we get the more we know that people know what to do when they suspect a child is at risk of abuse, neglect or living with someone with a dependency,” Schaffner said. “But all that means our foster homes get fuller. Our foster parents really step up.”

Many of the people who foster children in Trumbull County are “miracles” who sometimes have biological children, adopted children and foster children living in their homes, Schaffner said.

Children of people with substance use disorders often require longer stays in the system — the length rose 19 percent between 2010 and 2016 — and also need more services, like the mental health programs the agency offers, Schaffner said. Dependency leaves a mark on kids who watch their parent seek dope, get high and get sick when they run out.

Though substance abuse has long been an issue for child welfare officials, this is the most prolific wave of children affected by addiction since crack cocaine use surged in the 1980s, and experts said opioid use is driving the increase.

Funding the crisis

In Ohio, 28 percent of children taken into custody in 2015 had parents using opioids, according to the Public Children Services Association of Ohio, and that percentage has only gone up in 2016 and 2017. And 70 percent of babies under 1 and in state custody have a parent addicted to opioids.

Statewide, kids in state custody increased 16 percent between 2009 and 2016, while state funding went down 21 percent, according to the association.

Overall, Ohio invests four times less in children services than the national average, placing it 50th in the nation, according to the association.

Luckily, Trumbull County brings in funding with a children services levy to fund its operations, which includes 51 case workers — about the same amount of road deputies the Trumbull County Sheriff’s Office has.

The levy brought in about $9.2 million of the agency’s $16.3 million budget in 2016. Federally, the agency receives $2.9 million and the state contributes $1.2 million. Grants and other programs cover the rest of the budget.

“It is through the generosity of our taxpayers voting for our levies that we are able to handle these increases,” Schaffner said.

Because of the levy, the agency is able to keep case worker loads at industry standards, between 10 and 15 kids per case worker. But placement costs rose 17 percent between 2013 and 2016.

More foster parents needed

The Trumbull County agency needs more foster families, especially families willing to take teens and sibling groups. Though the recruitment process can seem intrusive because the agency has to verify your home is a safe and stable place for the child, Ferencik said it is well worth it.

Robyn Trinkle agrees. Trinkle and her husband, Eli, of Cortland signed adoption papers Friday for a young girl and her brother. The Trinkles fostered dozens, if not hundreds, of children before they adopted their children, Schaffner said.

“We wanted to help someone while we were waiting to adopt. We felt pulled toward this. Its’s a long process but we knew we wanted to give back,” Robyn Trinkle said.

A foster family informational meeting will be 5 p.m. Jan. 3 at the Trumbull County Children Services building, 2282 Reeves Road NE.

“It is just a matter of finding the families that really want to do this. I know they are out there,” Schaffner said. “The right family is out there and they probably have been thinking about this for a while and haven’t taken the first step. Come take the first step, become a foster parent.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.