Drug use breaking up families, overwhelming foster care

An increase in hard drug usage in Virginia has led to a spike in the number of local families permanently losing custody of their children.

In Lynchburg, the Department of Social Services has had 15 children enter foster care this year specifically due to parents’ use of meth or opioids as of Sept. 27, more than any year in the past, April Watson, the department’s foster care supervisor, said.

Typically the department only takes in three to five children, she said.

“This year already, we’ve had tons of babies come in, which usually, babies don’t come into foster care,” Watson said. “But this year, we’ve had baby after baby after baby coming in, [and] a lot of them are having withdrawal symptoms and things of that nature.”

Andy Crawford, director of the Bedford County Department of Social Services, said Bedford County started seeing the same pattern a few years ago: an increase in hard drug usage, in families losing children, in demand for foster homes.

He said the department began noticing the increase due to meth and opioid drug use about two to three years ago and about one or two years ago for heroin. In that same span, he said fewer children have been able to return home.

In Fiscal Year 2017, which runs from July 1, 2016, to June 30, 2017, Bedford County DSS took in a total of 27 children.

Between July 1, 2017, and the end of August, Bedford County DSS has already taken in 19 kids, Crawford said Wednesday.

In Virginia, families usually have 12 to 18 months to get their kids back after the children are removed from the home due to drug use. An increasing number of families don’t succeed because parents are unable to overcome their addiction.

Brent McCraw, director of Centra’s Pathways Addiction and Recovery Services, said addiction is a disease not unlike cancer or diabetes.

“One of the features of a dependence of any sort is a compulsive use, and from a cognitive standpoint, a very strong obsession,” McCraw said. “… In the later stages of addiction, people are either thinking about using, going through the motions of getting drugs, preparing to use, using or recovering from use. It’s just consuming.”

If people could stop, they wouldn’t have a disorder, he said.

“No one wakes up and says, ‘I want my kids to go in foster care today; I’m going to neglect them,’” Watson said. “Nobody ever grows up and wants to be that parent. People genuinely love their children; they just don’t have the coping mechanisms and the tools — and a lot of times, they have such significant trauma from their childhood that they can’t overcome — that leads to these situations.”

But social workers are on a tight schedule.

“We have 12 months to find permanency for children,” Watson said in a June interview. “So we are not seeing parents able to conquer that substance abuse in 12 months, so a lot of those kids are not returning home to their birth parents. They’re either going to relatives or adoption.”

Twelve months probably isn’t long enough to kick a substance use disorder, she said, noting that the department expects relapses.

“That’s just a part of recovery. It’s going to be a lifelong struggle … but for a child, a year is forever. It’s a long time, and it’s not really fair to make a child wait for something that might never happen.”

Bedford County requires parents to make marked progress, usually measured through reports from court-ordered substance abuse treatment programs and family therapy, to be “constantly” in treatment and demonstrate the ability to parent, Crawford said.

Lynchburg requires parents to be sober for six consecutive months, Lynchburg DSS Senior Child Protective Services Supervisor Tiffany Vassar said in June.

“If there’s a relapse, that [timer] starts over,” she said.

A July 1 state policy change regarding substance-exposed infants also has affected the number of children being taken in by the foster care system, Vassar said.

“Policy [changed] on July 1, where even if the mother has received treatment or is receiving treatment for substance abuse, normally that would not be validated because she’s in some kind of treatment program, and they’re working with her,” she said. “Now, that will be valid. So we will open that [case] even if she’s in treatment or if she’s prescribed prescription medicine and the baby’s positive.”

Another policy change went into effect July 1 that requires each department to respond to calls for children younger than 2 years old within 24 hours — something Crawford said he saw maybe once or twice per month in Bedford previously but has seen almost five times per day since the change.

As a result of the new policies, each social services department across the state received additional funding to hire more staff or rearrange resources from the Children’s Services Act, Crawford said, adding increased demands still are spreading the department thin, even with additional help.

The act is a 1993 Virginia law that created a single pool of funds allocated by the state to purchase services for at-risk youth and their families, according to the Virginia Office of Children’s Services website.

Regardless of cause, area social services departments are seeing a marked increase in drug-related foster care cases.

As of Thursday, Watson said Lynchburg had about 145 children in foster care. That same day, Bedford had 68 children in care, Crawford said.

In Amherst County, methamphetamine use is the biggest problem for the county’s department of social services, Director Susan Mays said.

Lynchburg used to mostly see marijuana cases in parents of kids in foster care, Vassar said. Now it’s PCP, meth, cocaine and opioids in the form of the illegal drug heroin and prescription pills, she said.

“A lot of times, [we’d] find that those [drugs] are connected to cases, but it’s not the reason for removal,” Watson said. “Nowadays, that is the reason for removal.”

In fiscal year 2017, 21 children entered the agency’s care because of drug use in the home, 13 specifically related to the use of opiates and meth, she said.

And the increases have led to a shortage in available foster care homes, Watson said.

The shortage especially is noticeable when it comes to placing teens and adolescents, Crawford said.

Though Lynchburg currently has about 90 foster care homes and Bedford has about 30, each department says it’s not enough for the demands it’s seeing.

“For us, a lot of these homes, they’ll adopt the children,” Watson said, adding that once the homes adopt children, they often leave the foster care program forcing social services to recruit new foster parents. “Whereas back in the day, we would cycle through [foster] family after [foster] family; nowadays kids are coming and staying, and so they’re being closed, and we need more families to open their doors.”

Foster care is the last resort, Watson said, so most social services departments offer preventative services such as parenting classes to give parents the tools they need to reunite with their children.

“The problem is when parents struggle with behaviors and substance abuse that puts children at risk of abuse and neglect,” Crawford said.

That’s when the department gets involved and tries to get parents any services or treatment while the children are placed somewhere else, Vassar said.

Watson said ideally the department will return children to their birth parents, but that’s not always possible with the current trends in drug use.

“Our highest goal is adoption right now, and it’s never been before,” she said.

Nelson, Appomattox and Campbell counties’ social services departments did not respond to requests for comment.

Rachel Mahoney contributed the quote from the Amherst County Department of Social Services.