- By Michael Cooper Staff Writer
The deepening drug crisis in Clark County and Ohio threatens to leave thousands of traumatized children in its wake, local and state experts said.
The Family and Children Services division of the Clark County Department of Job and Family Services has investigated at least 33 cases this year of children who were in danger because of an adult overdose. Referrals overall have increased about 15 percent since 2016.
“We’re very fearful we’re going to lose an entire generation if we don’t as a state step up appropriately and adequately meet their needs,” Public Children’s Services Association of Ohio Executive Director Angela Sausser said.
Last year nearly half of the Clark County children whom Children Services removed from their homes were related to their parents’ drug or alcohol issues, according to state records. Clark County also has had three children who have had to receive Narcan — the overdose reversal drug — including a 1-year-old baby.
Discovering an unconscious parent who’s overdosed can be extremely traumatic, Clark County Children’s Services Deputy Director Pam Meermans said, depending on the age of the child.
“They may or may not have an insight into what’s going on with mom or dad,” Meermans said. “We’ve had kids who have called a neighbor or 9-1-1. They’re present when the squad comes and when Narcan is administered … It’s a very chaotic situation.”
About 13,700 Ohio children were in state care last year, up from about 12,400 in 2012, according to the state association’s annual fact book released this month.
In 2015, 28 percent of children taken into custody had parents using opioids, according to the survey.
“Last year, I don’t think we were even talking overdoses. … They existed, but I don’t think it was common place,” Meermans said.
Taking its toll
As of May 23, Clark County has seen more than 600 overdoses, according to Clark County Prosecutor Andy Wilson. That includes at least 69 suspected drug deaths, 39 of which have been confirmed, according to the Clark County Coroner’s Office.
The Springfield News-Sun has reported several cases where children have found parents unresponsive, including:
• On Feb. 1, Clark County Sheriff’s Office deputies were sent to Enon after a female motorist saw a 5-year-old boy running down Conway Street crying “mom and dad are dead.” Deputies found two adults unresponsive and it took 10 doses of Narcan to revive them.
• In April, a Springfield man was arrested after he was allegedly found to have overdosed on heroin with a 9-year-old child in his home.
• Another Springfield man was revived with Narcan and later charged with child endangering after the child victim told police it was the eighth time the man had overdosed.
Child endangering cases increased about 128 percent between 2014 and 2015, according to Springfield Police Division records. There were 64 cases in 2015 and that number remained steady at 60 last year. The police have had 17 cases this year as of May 14.
The complex trauma suffered by children in these situations can often lead to depression, suicidal thoughts, aggression, post-traumatic stress disorder or their own substance abuse issues in the future, Meermans said.
“The whole dynamics of trauma and its effects upon us physiologically and psychologically is huge,” Meermans said. “These are children who are to some degree or another dependent on their parent. They see them unresponsive, and depending upon their age, (they think) they’re dead. I don’t think it gets more traumatic than that.”
Many children have been trained to use Narcan by their parents, Sausser said, while in other situations, young girls have been prostituted so parents can purchase drugs. In one situation, a son watched his father beat his mother until she agreed to purchase drugs, she said.
“These are the situations these kids are coming from,” Sausser said. “That type of trauma impacts their mental health and their development. They need a lot of help. If we don’t address it now, these young children are going to grow up with a lot of issues.”
All county and state agencies spend a total of about $1 billion annually in child protection services, Sausser said. The state provides about $45 million of that to Ohio counties, or about 5 percent of the overall expenditures, she said. The remaining money comes from federal funding and local children’s services levies, Sausser said.
In 2016, Clark County spent about $8 million on children’s services, including about $3 million from a local levy.
Due to the growth of children in foster homes or other forms of care and the rising costs of placements, she said many counties aren’t able to pay for services solely with levy money.
The state children’s services association asked state lawmakers to increase its child protection allocation by $30 million annually, Sausser said.
The budget approved recently by the Ohio House increased the total amount by $15 million annually, Sausser said. The Ohio Senate is now debating the budget and it held hearings last week where child protection services providers testified to increase the funding, she said. The state budget is expected to be signed at the end of June.
The rise in opioid-related cases is significantly taxing the system, Sausser said. About 19 percent of children are staying in foster care longer because of the amount of time it takes for parents to successfully recover, she said.
That’s made it difficult for counties to find available foster homes, Sausser said. About 14,000 Ohio children are in foster care this year and the state has about 7,000 licensed foster homes.
“Many of these foster parents are caring for kids who aren’t able to go back home because their parents are still addicted to drugs,” Sausser said. “Many of these parents are moving toward adopting these kids. When that happens, it puts a strain on our system in terms of being able to find an available home for the child.”
Due to the amount of trauma, some children will be admitted to a higher level of care, such as a residential treatment facility, rather than a foster home or family members, she said.
On the scene
The Springfield/Fire Rescue Division’s protocol is to protect children at the scene of an overdose until another agency, such as Children’s Services or a family member arrives on scene, Chief Nick Heimlich said.
“Kids are effectively abandoned in the moment by the situation,” he said. “Our obligation is to make sure that they’re not lost or forgotten in this process. We need to be aware of that and if we need more resources to the scene, we’ll do that.”
Firefighters take extra precautions when dealing with children due to the trauma caused, Heimlich said.
“Your heart goes out to the kid right away,” he said. “Either they’re afraid because their parent is sick or ill or injured, they’re afraid because it was a threatening environment or they’re afraid because they don’t know what going on.”
The saddest runs are the ones where children aren’t afraid or upset because they’ve become used to it, Heimlich said.
“When they react that way to the scene, you know it’s not the first time they’ve been in that environment,” he said, “and that’s the heart-breaker. It’s hard for our folks to be in that environment and see those kids.”
Once a child is removed from a scene, Children’s Services has 24 hours to decide if the child should be placed into their custody or returned to their home with a safety plan, Meermans said.
In an overdose situation, the child typically doesn’t go back to parents right away, she said.
“That’s not a safe environment,” Meermans said.
After the crisis
Clark County Children’s Services averages about 110 children in foster care, she said. Another 100 children are typically placed with family members, decided through the court system, which can lead to permanent custody, Meermans said.
The division works with parents on a case management plan in which they must complete certain tasks, such as a drug evaluation, she said, to get their children back.
A lot of parents don’t complete the plan because of the amount of time it takes to recover, Meermans said.
“It’s so difficult to stop,” she said. “We underestimate the power of addiction. The opioid addiction is so powerful. Your whole world is maintaining that addiction so you’re not making good choices.”
The main driver for children to be placed into the foster care system is typically their parents’ substance abuse or mental health, Meermans said.
“The opioid epidemic is exploding in terms of kids being in unsafe situations,” she said.
Twenty years ago, the system would generally place children in foster care, Meermans said, which is not the best outcome for children.
“It’s the most traumatic intervention that we can do as child welfare,” she said. “If children cannot be safe in their own home, then we want them to be with family.”
Case workers are also experiencing trauma, Sausser said, removing children from the home or telling them their parents have died from an overdose. Last year, the industry lost an average of one in seven case workers, she said.
“We’re seeing it in the turnover of our work force,” Sausser said.
Springfield addiction treatment facility McKinley Hall has received state money as well as local dollars from both the Community Health Foundation and United Way to help the children of women receiving treatment, Chief Executive Officer Wendy Doolittle said.
“Basically 100 percent of the kids we work with are at-risk because their moms are addicts, and sometimes the dads are, too,” she said.
The facility works to develop as many social skills as possible and decrease risk factors as much as possible, Doolittle said.
“Hopefully, it will strengthen them for resiliency in case their mom should relapse or whatever might happen in the future,” she said. “The goal is to try to build resilient kids and teach them about addiction.”
After witnessing the crack cocaine epidemic in the 1980s, she said it’s important to engage children sooner.
“Just because the mother may have been removed, it doesn’t mean the child is OK now,” Doolittle said. “There are all kinds of attachment problems that can occur. The key is that we don’t repeat what we did with the crack cocaine epidemic and we get in there with these kids.”
McKinley Hall and the local Families of Addicts group are working together to start youth groups for children with parents who are addicts or recovering addicts.
About 1,500 grandparents raising grandchildren, according to the Public Children’s Services Association of Ohio. Several members of the Clark County Families of Addicts group have custody of their grandchildren, Co-Director Melanie Silvus said.
She is hopeful the youth group can educate children so they won’t end up going down the same path as a parent or relative, she said.
“There will be a couple different groups at different times,” Silvus said.
While the children in McKinley Hall’s program are getting help, Doolittle knows more children are out there whose parents have already died or they’re already living with grandparents, she said. The organization will likely work with children’s services to promote the youth group, Doolittle said.
“It’s definitely needed,” she said. “It’s hard to get that kind of group started because of the stigma. Everyone is real quiet and ashamed, but at the end of the day, we know who they are. We can get them there and get it going.”
Springfield resident Eric Mata often tells people he lived two childhoods.
In elementary school, he had a good childhood where his family took vacations and had nice Christmases, he said. By middle school, everything changed when his parents began using drugs and eventually lost everything and got divorced.
“It was like a night and day difference,” Mata said.
For several years, his parents continued to use, he said. He went from having good role models to nobody, Mata said.
“I had no authority figures, no type of positive influences,” he said.
Mata began hanging around people who used drugs and found a new sense of belonging in the streets, he said. By the age of 16, he was using with his parents, Mata said.
“It definitely had an impact on what I thought was right and wrong,” he said. “I thought this was life.”
By the age of 22, Mata decided to get clean — while most of his family still used drugs, he said.
“We were all in survival mode,” Mata said. “It was live to use and use to live.”
Today, they’re all sober.
“It’s truly a miracle,” Mata said. “It’s nice to have the family back. We all believe in each other and support one another.”
After getting clean, Mata was a 22-year-old high school dropout and a convicted felon with no work history.
“Getting clean wasn’t the solution,” he said. “It was a new journey of me finding a new way to live.”
Mata now works as a life coach with CareSource Life Services, helping people not just remove themselves from addiction, but also rebuild their lives from the ground up — including working to get their children back into their custody.
It takes a lot of stability proven over time to place the child back into the care of a recovering addict, Mata said.
“In order to do that, you have to teach someone how to be employed, how to keep a job, how to pay child support, get their own place,” he said. “It takes a year or two just (for a person) to be in position to where the kids can come back, if they choose to and for the person to have the ways and means to support them.”
SPRINGFIELD’S OPIOID WAR