Opioid Epidemic Putting Thousands More in Foster Care

Dec 26, 2017

Throughout the Ohio Valley and West Virginia, thousands of children are in foster care -- and the opioid epidemic is sending thousands more to join them. In fact, in just the past year, West Virginia's foster care system alone saw an increase of 1,000 children entering care.

In 2016, West Virginia Public Broadcasting spoke with the Holbens, a former-foster family in Kearneysville, Jefferson County, to shed light on the struggles the opioid epidemic brings on foster care. We now check back in with that family and explore what lies ahead in combating this crisis.

Be sure to tune in for more on this subject during our nightly television program, The Legislature Today beginning January 11, 2018.

The Holben's Experience

Stay-at-home mom and daycare provider Jen Holben lives in Kearneysville with her six kids. They’re like any other family – they joke with each other, share meals, laugh, play, and watch movies together. They love church and they’re actively involved at school and within the community.

But Jen is also a former-foster parent, who, for 14 years, along with her ex-husband, fostered 27 children ranging in age from infant to 18.

“I had heard adoption stories, and I really started to think I would like to adopt," Jen said, "and when I started to research, I really didn’t know much about the foster care system at all, but when I would type in adoption, foster care would come up, and I educated myself, and I thought, that’s what I want to do, I want to help children.”

Jen also has two biological sons who are in high school. Of the 27 children she’s fostered, she adopted four – three of whom were exposed to drugs or alcohol in utero. 

“My youngest was born addicted to three different drugs, and he was in the hospital for three weeks, and when he came home from the hospital, he screamed for four months straight until he really got off the drugs," she remembered, "Right now, he’s on target. He’s really excelling and doing really well.”

The two other children impacted by drugs or alcohol are biologically related sisters.

The 9-year-old was born while her mother was addicted to heroin. Jen says she’s doing well, but will likely need ongoing help in school.

Jen’s other daughter, who’s 11-years-old, struggles a bit more.

“She’s probably on a second or third grade level and should be in the sixth grade, and she has fetal alcohol syndrome. She suffers from epilepsy from the fetal alcohol syndrome and is severely delayed.”

Both girls also have attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, and take medication for it.

Jen says despite medical and academic struggles, she loves being a mom and watching her kids grow.

But there are other kids in the West Virginia foster care system who still need help. For Jen, the solution is making sure these kids are placed in a secure environment, early, and for the long term.

“We just need to get these kids in permanent homes as fast as we can, so that they can just heal," she said, "I mean, if they’re drug addicted, then they need to overcome that. If they’ve been taken away because of neglect and abuse, then we need to get therapy, and let them do that, but they can’t do that if they’re jumping from placement to placement, or going home and coming back, I think we just really need to put the kids first.”

Credit Toby Talbot / AP Photo

The Opioid Epidemic & Foster Care

But finding permanent homes is rarely easy.

The West Virginia Children’s Home Society, or CHS, is one of 10 agencies in the state that handle foster care referrals from the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources.

The organization works to find the best matchups for children who need temporary or permanent placements – whether that’s in traditional foster homes like Jen’s, or in other placements, such as with a relative or in emergency shelters.

Chief Executive Officer of CHS Steve Tuck notes that in just the last few years, there’s been a dramatic spike in the number of children coming into care - this has made it harder to ensure these kids find adequate home environments.

He also says the opioid epidemic has played a major role in that rise.

“The need has only gone up," Tuck explained, "The number in care had gone up close to 6,000 from what it had stabilized for many years at around 4,000 kids, state kids in-care; it’s even in these last few months, it’s gone up almost 100 a month.”

DHHR reported in November 2017 that nearly 6,400 West Virginia children are in foster care. That’s about 1,000 more kids in care than the previous year.

Tuck says it’s hard to pinpoint just how many of those children are coming into care as a direct result of substance abuse.

For example, if a child is pulled from a home because of some form of neglect, the role substance abuse played isn’t always clearly noted. Likewise, when children are born with drug related issues, there’s no consistent methods for determining the extent of parental substance abuse.

Tuck says to improve these situations, there needs to be more communication.

“We all need to get together from the medical, especially the hospitals serving those situations, and the ones that might need to take custody for children,” he noted.

Despite the difficulties, Tuck argues the general consensus regarding the number of children coming into care due to substance abuse is at least 50 percent.

“And I’ve seen numbers as high as 90 [percent], but that’s really probably people’s more anecdotal, you know, who’ve worked in this work a long-time, acknowledgement that it almost affects every placement of children coming into care.” - Steve Tuck

Tuck says one way to help limit the number of children needing to enter care is to start with the families.

CHS, Marshall University, DHHR, and the behavioral health and addiction treatment center Prestera are all working together on a pilot project to help addicted mothers get the care and therapy they need to get off drugs and keep their children.

The pilot project has been launched in Cabell, Lincoln, and Wayne counties first, but Tuck hopes if it’s successful, it will expand to all 55 counties.

Tuck asks state lawmakers to keep the foster care system in mind during the 2018 state Legislative session.

“My encouragement to them is really just to acknowledge that there’s a lot higher cost to taking care of these kids," he said, "and they are our West Virginia children that we all are responsible for, so they really have to look at that one when most of the discussions are around budget cuts and reduced funding and things like that.”

Back at the Holben’s, Jen encourages more West Virginia families to think about becoming foster parents.

“You hear all this stuff, and it can scare you away, but is the most rewarding; every kid I’ve had has been a blessing to me, but definitely educate yourself, so you’re prepared for what you might deal with, and just always remember that a kid that comes to your house through foster care, through adoption, through anything; their story goes beyond the day you bring them home," Jen explained, "And whether you bring them home as a baby, they still have biological parents that, it’s part of them, and it’s part of their story; their story isn’t just being in your home.”

Still, Jen’s biggest concern is ensuring the children who end up in West Virginia’s foster care system are placed in permanent homes as soon as possible.

According to the West Virginia DHHR, of the nearly 6,400 children in foster care, 51 are available for adoption.