Jody Herring was something of an archetype in the Vermont foster care system. The 40-year-old mother had a history of physically abusing family members, drunk driving, and yes — opioid use. A DUI report from June 2015 showed Herring was an “intravenous heroin user.”
As a result, Herring lost custody of her nine-year-old daughter.
About 2,600 children entered the Indiana foster care system in the last six months because of parental drug abuse.
In a display of outrage, Herring took a .270 caliber rifle and slaughtered three family members in their home. Then she went to the office where Lara Sobel, a 48-year-old social worker for the Department for Children and Families (DCF), was just leaving work. Herring fired a shot at Sobel, hitting her in the torso. She then walked up to Sobel, who had collapsed to the pavement, and shot again. Scott Williams, Washington County’s state attorney, restrained Herring and wrung the rifle from her hands.
Vermont was one of the first states to recognize and address the opioid epidemic and its effect on the foster care system. In September 2013, the Vermont foster care system had 982 children. That number jumped to 1,373 children by September 2015. Stories like the one above could become increasingly common as the opioid epidemic worsens.
“In a survey of cases conducted by DCF, opiate use was a factor in 80 percent of cases where a child under the age of three was brought into custody,” reads a report from the governor’s office.
“The effect that the opiate crisis is having on Vermont’s children is heartbreaking,” said Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin in a media release. “All of those involved in the child protection system are doing heroic work, but they need additional resources. We have to remember that social workers and others who are dedicating their lives to protecting Vermont’s children are dealing with some of the most horrific and tragic family circumstances one can imagine.”
About 25 percent of the case managers in Indiana’s Department of Child Services quit last year, citing burnout as the reason.
The state has allocated $8.4 million in spending. This money will hire 35 additional employees, including social workers, supervisors, and administrators.
Ohio has been struggling with similar statistics. In Clermont County near Cincinnati, more than half the kids in the foster system are there because of parental opioid use. The state also saw a 40 percent increase in children admitted to the system. State administrators have responded by creating a program to help opioid-dependent pregnant women deliver healthy babies. They have also built more drug-free housing for recovering addicts.
Police in East Liverpool, Ohio, wanting to hammer home just how devastating the problem is, released a photo of a couple passed out from heroin overdoses in the front of a van, as a four-year-old boy sat bewildered in the back. The couple had been on their way to the hospital when police pulled them over for erratic driving. The driver passed out shortly afterward.
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In Indiana, about 2,600 children entered the foster care system in the last six months because of parental drug abuse — up 71 percent from previous years. A children’s homeless shelter in Indianapolis once housed children for two days or so until they found a home. Now children are staying there for months on end.
And the social workers dealing with these situations aren’t just struggling to stay safe. They’re also fighting to stay sane. Despite the increased number of children needing services, the state didn’t immediately increase the number of social workers proportionally. About 25 percent of the case managers in Indiana’s Department of Child Services quit last year, citing burnout as the reason.
Vermont, too, overloads its workers. Each social worker supervises the cases of more than 17 families. But Vermont is aiming to increase their social workers as well so that the number of families per worker will decrease to 15 by the end of 2018.
There are more than 415,000 children in foster care nationwide. Federal law requires these children to be reunited with their families or placed up for adoption after 15 consecutive months in foster care. The timer begins once the case is filed in court. If parents can’t kick their drug habit in time, they lose their children permanently. Even after a child becomes eligible for adoption, he or she is likely to spend more than three years in the system before being adopted.
Help isn’t always readily available to the parents. Subsidized drug rehab programs often have a waiting list that is weeks or months long, and a habitual heroin user almost never has $20,000 lying around to pay for a private program.
But many states are improving their responses to the opioid crisis by improving their outreach to drug addicts, hiring more social workers and coaches, and boosting the community awareness of foster care. That said — the problem will likely continue until we find a way to reduce the number of people getting addicted in the first place.