Heroin, Opioid Abuse Put Extra Strain On U.S. Foster Care System

Oct 27, 2015
Originally published on October 29, 2015 11:28 am

Last year, Erin and Isaac Hougland of Indianapolis got certified to become foster parents, with the hope of adopting a baby. Just a few weeks later, they got a call.

An 8-week-old baby needed a home. All they knew was that the boy's mother was a heroin addict and had left him at the hospital. They were told that because of the drugs, the baby might require some special care. But mostly, he just needed a place to go.

"Both of us were just like, 'Let's do it,' " says Isaac Hougland. "We wrapped up what we were doing at work and went to the hospital."

The Houglands' foster son is part of a new national influx of kids coming into foster care because parents abusing heroin or prescription painkillers can no longer care for them.

A recent report by the federal government shows that, after years of decline, the number of children in foster care is going up again. Roughly 265,000 kids entered foster care last year — the highest number since 2008.

Between September of 2013 and September of 2015, Indiana saw the number of "children in need of services" jump by 40 percent. In more than half of new cases in which children had to be removed from their homes, substance abuse was listed as a reason. As in other states (such as nearby Ohio), officials in Indiana blame heroin and prescription painkillers.

The increase is taxing the child welfare system, officials say. Children of addicts often need special care and counseling, and they often stay in the system longer because it can take months or years for their parents to get clean.

"We have more children than we've ever had in our system in Indiana," says Mary Beth Bonaventura, director of the state's Department of Child Services. "That puts a stress on the staff, a stress and strain on providers." And it's increasingly a challenge, she says, "to find and recruit and train qualified foster families."

If the Houglands hadn't provided a home for their foster son, he might have ended up at an emergency shelter like the Children's Bureau, a nonprofit in Indianapolis. The organization takes in kids from the Department of Child Services when a foster family can't be found quickly.

"Kids come in here 24/7," says Tina Cloer, who directs the Children's Bureau. "So we accept kids all day and all night, and we get calls all day and all night."

The shelter has been full more often this year, she says, as it has become harder to find kids foster homes. Last year, the average stay was just two days — now, it's 10. "We have kids that have been here as long as 2 [or] 2 1/2 months," Cloer says.

The large number of cases burdens other parts of the system, too.

Indiana's Department of Child Services has a burnout problem: It has lost about a quarter of its case managers in the past year.

"I've had a case where we've had nine case managers on it — in a year," says Marilyn Moores, a juvenile court judge in Indianapolis. "That's the far end, but it's not unusual to have three or four."

This year, the child services department started a counseling program for employees, in hopes of retaining more case managers. And the state approved the hiring of 230 more people, but finding and training them will take time. Recruiting can be tough, says Bonaventura.

"If you don't recruit the right people, they're out the door the minute they realize how stressful and how gut-wrenching this work is," she says.

Meanwhile, as the number of cases rises, Moores says, the stress continues to mount for everyone involved, including court employees.

"It just reached a point where every system partner involved in this that I've talked to in the last week, when I've talked to them, at some point they get tears in their eyes," she says. "They are just overwhelmed."

After more than a year of waiting, Erin and Isaac Hougland are looking forward to finally adopting their foster son. But it might take a little longer than usual. Adoption paperwork is piling up, too.

This piece comes from Side Effects Public Media, a public radio reporting collaborative that explores the impacts of place, policy and economics on health.

Copyright 2015 WFYI-FM. To see more, visit http://www.wfyi.org.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Children of addicts often see too much too soon. They can find their parents high, passed out or worse. They're often subject to abuse and neglect. If child services are called, the kids may be removed from their homes. A recent federal government report shows 415,000 children were in foster care at some point during last year. A new increase of foster children is now being blamed on the epidemic of heroin and prescription painkiller abuse. Reporter Jake Harper takes us to Indiana, where these cases are putting a strain on the entire child welfare system.

ERIN HOUGLAND: What does a duck say?

UNIDENTIFIED BOY: (Unintelligible).

E. HOUGLAND: That's right.

JAKE HARPER, BYLINE: Last year, Erin and Isaac Hougland got certified to become foster parents. Just a few weeks later, they got a call.

E. HOUGLAND: We only had, literally, five minutes to make a decision on whether or not we would say yes.

HARPER: All they knew was that the boy's mother was a heroin addict. She just left him at the hospital. They were told that because of the drugs, he might require some special care. But mostly, he just needed a home.

ISAAC HOUGLAND: Both of us were just like, let's do it. We wrapped up what we were doing at work and went to the hospital, yeah, and we met him.

HARPER: The Hoagland's foster son is a part of the influx of kids into Indiana's child welfare system. Two years ago, the state had 14,000 children in need of services. As of September, there were 19,500. More than half of the new cases list substance abuse as a reason for the kids' removal from their home.

As in other states, officials here blame heroin and prescription painkillers, and it's especially taxing for the child welfare system. Children of addicts often need special care and counseling, and they stay in the system longer because it can take months or years for their parents to get clean.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #1: What's your favorite color?

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #2: Purple.

HARPER: If the Houglands hadn't taken in their foster son, he might've eventually ended up here, at Children's Bureau in Indianapolis. Tina Cloer runs the organization, which operates an emergency shelter for kids, who are often sent from Child Services.

TINA CLOER: Kids come in here 24-7 so we accept kids all day and all night, and we get calls at - all day and all night.

HARPER: Cloer says the shelter has been full more often this year and it's become harder to move kids out into foster homes. Last year, the average stay was just two days.

CLOER: The last time I checked, we were running at about 10 days, but we have kids that have been here as long as two, two-and-a-half months.

HARPER: The large number of cases puts a burden on more than just foster care. Indiana's Department of Child Services has a burnout problem. It lost about a quarter of its case managers in the last year.

MARILYN MOORES: I have a case where we've had nine case managers on it in a year.

HARPER: Marilyn Moores sees every aspect of case management as a juvenile court judge in Indianapolis.

Wait - sorry - nine in a year?

MOORES: Nine in a year. That's the far end, but it's not unusual to have three or four.

HARPER: This year, the Department of Child Services started a counseling program for employees in hopes of retaining more case managers, and the state approved the hiring of 230 more people. But finding and training them will take time. Meanwhile, Moores says the stresses continue to mount for everyone involved.

MOORES: It just reached a point where every system partner that - involved in this that I've talked to in the last week, when I've talked to them, at some point they get tears in their eyes. They're just overwhelmed.

E. HOUGLAND: Are you walking on your tippy-toes?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: That is so cute.

HARPER: After more than a year of waiting, Erin and Isaac Hougland are looking forward to finally adopting their foster son.

E. HOUGLAND: We're just a court date away from it being final.

HARPER: But it might take a little longer than usual. Like everything else, adoption paperwork is piling up too.

For NPR News, I'm Jake Harper in Indianapolis.

SIEGEL: That story was produced with Side Effects Public Media, a reporting collaborative focused on public health. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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