It’s been said that Ohio’s heroin crisis impacts people of all backgrounds; the drug doesn’t discriminate against age, race or income. But heroin affects more than just those who use it. Some of the the drug’s biggest victims are the smallest and quietest among us — children of those suffering from severe substance use disorders.
The recent scourge of opiate use in Ohio has left many children in foster and relative care as their parents struggle with the personal effects of heroin and other opioids. Children of addiction are facing a harsh reality that often ends in the loss of custody for struggling parents and guardians.
Since 2010, the number of children removed from their homes by protective services has increased by 11 percent.
In September, 2016, the police department in East Liverpool, Ohio released a police report accompanied by harrowing photographs in a Facebook post that awakened many to the realities of children living with the effects of heroin. The images show a man and woman slumped over in the front of an SUV with a young boy in a rear car seat.
The two adults, the boy’s grandmother and her boyfriend, were on their way to the hospital when they skidded across the pavement to an abrupt stop, just before the driver lost consciousness from a heroin overdose. In the Facebook post, the police department says they “are hopeful his story can convince another user to think twice about injecting this poison while having a child in their custody.”
But it’s not the only story Ohio has heard about children witnessing heroin overdoses. In some cases, children are taking responsibility and saving lives. In March, 2017, a 9-year-old girl called 911 from the backseat of her parents’ SUV as they both lost consciousness. After putting the car in park, the child described her surroundings to a dispatcher before help arrived to administer life-saving treatment to the parents. Like many other children of those suffering from opioid addiction, the young girl was taken into protective custody.
A System Overwhelmed
As a result of widespread heroin use and overdose in Ohio, kids are being taken out of their homes at an increased rate. Since 2010, the number of children removed from their homes by protective services has increased by 11 percent, with the average time away from the home up by 19 percent. In 2015, half of all removals were due to drug addiction.
With nearly 14,000 children under the age of 18 in protective custody, the state’s resources are wearing thin. In response, 14 southern Ohio counties — Athens, Clermont, Clinton, Fairfield, Fayette, Gallia, Highland, Jackson, Perry, Pickaway, Pike, Hocking, Ross and Vinton — will receive a $3.6 million grant to aid in trauma counseling, home visits and more for children who have been impacted by the heroin epidemic.
But what’s most surprising is where these funds are drawn from. The majority of the program is paid for by the Victims of Crime Act fund, which is normally reserved for helping victims cover medical costs and property damages as a result of crime. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine explains the use of the funds, saying, “I felt we could certainly morally justify it on the basis that these are victims — these kids are victims.”
Sixty percent of foster children under the age of five spent at least one birthday in temporary care.
The Struggle for Stability
The goal of the system is to keep children in safe homes with their parents or caregivers if possible. While many are returned home after their parents or guardians seek treatment, others stay away for extended periods of time. Sixty percent of foster children under the age of five spent at least one birthday in temporary care, a trend that reflects the struggle many face in overcoming addiction.
For those with severe substance use disorders, it can be a daily struggle to take care of their own needs, let alone a child’s, leaving many kids neglected. And with 2,590 fatal opioid overdoses in 2015, some children are orphaned as a result of their parents’ addiction, leaving them in the permanent care of relatives or the foster system.
In March, 2017, The Washington Post reported on four Centerville children, ages 9 to 13, who called 911 after finding their parents unresponsive one morning. The couple, an airline pilot and his wife, purportedly overdosed on a deadly mixture of heroin and fentanyl. There are no typecast users in Ohio; the disease of addiction can grip anyone and transform a family, so it’s important to be aware of potential child endangerment or neglect as a result of addiction.
Supporting Ohio’s Children of Addiction
While the number of home removals as a result of drug use is on the rise in Ohio, there is hope. If one or more parents struggle with heroin addiction, or any other severe substance abuse disorder, it’s important to seek help. Local centers and support groups in most communities can help maintain long-term success. Full-service facilities like The Recovery Village Columbus, Ohio can help you or a loved one take the first step towards sobriety and keep families intact by preventing overdose and overcoming addiction.
With so many children in protective care, bolstering the Ohio foster system is more important than ever. Hamilton County Job & Family Services offers many ways to get involved, including becoming a foster or adoptive parent, mentor, advocate or donor. By developing local communities and social programs, Ohio can overcome its opioid dependence and encourage the next generation to thrive.
If you suspect child abuse, neglect or endangerment, contact the public children services agency in your county, or call 1-855-OH-CHILD (42-4453).