As in Highland County, child welfare advocates across Ohio say children have become the “invisible victims” of the opioid crisis, as more kids are put into foster care and funding for children services agencies falls short.
Ohio has some 14,000 children in agency custody — a nearly 13 percent increase since the end of 2012. A recent survey by the Public Children Services Association of Ohio found at least half of children taken into custody last year had parents using drugs that were mostly opiates, The Columbus Dispatch reported as part of a series on stories on the impact of heroin in Ohio.
Some counties have reported more children are being adopted than reunited with their parents.
According to the survey, nearly 94 percent of the state’s 88 county Children Services agencies say heroin and other opiates are a serious problem in their communities. But the agencies haven’t received new money from the state, which is ranked last in the nation for child protection funding. So, some agencies are asking voters to approve new levies because of the financial shortfalls, even if they have existing levies.
In July in Highland County, the county commissioners voted unanimously to place a new 1.9-mill property tax levy on the ballot to support Children Services. If passed, the levy would be for five years and would cost the owner of a $100,000 property $59.85 a year.
Commissioner Tom Horst said at the time, “We have to take care of these kids. They were put in these situations under no cause of their own. They did not cause what happened to them.”
The levy is needed, the commissioners and other elected officials said, because an extra $1 million was needed above what was appropriated for Children Services last year and it looks like it’s going to be about the same again this year.
“I hope the voters understand this wasn’t a rash or snap decision,” commission president Shane Wilkin said. “It wasn’t the first option. We tried to see what we could do to get to a manageable rate and I think Katie Adams has done an outstanding job with that. We had things that needed trimmed and we trimmed those.”
Adams is the director of Children Services, and she has been speaking in front of various audiences explaining the need for the levy. She told a Hillsboro Rotary Club meeting last week that 90 percent of children who are being removed from homes are removed due to drug abuse in the home.
“We are in a crisis, and it’s the children who suffer,” she said, adding that there are “five-year-olds who can tell you how to make meth” because of what they witness in their homes.
At the same time, voters in Highland, Fayette, Pickaway, Pike and Ross counties are being asked to approve a new 1-mill, 10-year Paint Valley Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health (ADAMH) levy that will cost about $35 for each $100,000 of property evaluation.
Officials with Paint Valley, which contracts locally with FRS Counseling, also point to the impact of the growing drug crisis on children as a reason to pass its levy. On Tuesday, ADAMH associate director Penny Dehner addressed Hillsboro Rotarians and cited statistics showing that 75 percent of parents with children in foster care have a substance abuse problem.
Lorra Fuller, who heads a Children Services agency in Scioto County, said she can only afford to pay local foster parents $27.50 a day. The agency has a $3 million budget that keeps taking hits, including a $16,000 penalty this year for not meeting the federal standard on parent-child visitation rates.
The agency had 80 children in custody four years ago. It had 173 by early this summer, with more than 50 under the age of 2.
“We have to keep children safe, and we rob Peter to pay Paul to do it,” Fuller said.
Lawmakers’ responses to the opiate crisis have focused more on opioid prescribing practices and treatment for addicts and less on the child welfare system, advocates said.
“Everybody’s patting themselves on the back, saying we’ve shut down the pill mills, we’ve got more treatment, we’re doing all kinds of stuff,” said Joel Potts, executive director of the Ohio Job and Family Services Directors’ Association. “Well, what about the kids?”
Agency workers said they aren’t seeing much success with treatment and recovery. A program that provides treatment and prenatal care for pregnant addicts operates in four counties, and the state has just 17 family drug treatment courts.
“It’s taking a whole generation of our young parents,” said Catherine Hill, executive director of Athens County Children Services in southeastern Ohio.
The number of kids being taken into state custody doesn’t account for how many children are being taken in by relatives. Tim Harless, a spokesman for Richland County Children Services in Mansfield, said the child welfare system would be overwhelmed without families stepping up to care for the children of their drug-abusing relatives.
“There are a lot of families out there dealing with this without our involvement,” he said. “That number is probably much higher than the number of kids for whom we have actual cases.”