Child Service Workers Pick Up the Pieces Of Ohio's Opioid Crisis

Caroline lost custody of her six children due to her opioid addiction. Now, she's sober and working to win her youngest back. [Gabe Rosenberg]
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by Esther Honig

Ohio’s heroin epidemic has pushed more children into state custody. As agencies saw about 1,000 additional cases over the past year-and-a-half, funding for those agencies has shrunk dramatically.

In Ross county, Ohio, nearly 90 percent of kids placed in foster home are there because their parents struggle with addiction.

The sky is overcast as caseworker, Jennifer Mills, drives down a long open road, flanked by fields of yellow grass. Mills says most days she drives from one end of Ross county to the other filing paperwork at the local courthouse and checking on cases; many are parents struggling to overcome addiction while their kids live with foster families. Mills has had this job for three years, and in that time, only two of her cases were not drug related.

"Drug cases are hard," says Mills, "because you want them to want to be successful. And I think some of them really truly want to, but the drugs stronger then their desire."

Mills recalls parents who stayed clean for years, only to relapse and die from a overdose. Or a four-year-old boy who showed Mills how his mom would tie a tourniquet on her arm and shoot up with heroin.  "In that particular case there were needles found in his bedroom."

The drug epidemic has effected countless lives in Ohio, the most vulnerable being children. But Ohio ranks last in the country for the amount of state funding for child protection services. In the last decade, that funding has fallen by 17%, or about $93 million dollar.

In Ohio, counties are responsible for their own child service agencies. While wealthier urban areas use property tax money, poorer rural areas often struggle.

Jody Walker is the director of the children services agency that serves Ross, Vinton and Hocking. Walker says, agencies like his rely heavily on tax levies, if they can even get voters to support them, or if they're lucky, the county commission.

"But again," says Walker, "it becomes a local cost, and while the state, they do give us an allocation, but it doesn't go very far."

Walker says the number of cases going up, and the cost to care for these kids is increasing. With a tight budget, the agency can do little to invest in programs for prevention.  "At this point we're just doing the day to day things right now and making sure kids are safe."

The drug cases tend to drag out longer. They require constant check-ins, drug screening and legal work. Because many parents fail to overcome their addictions, they eventually lose custody of their kids. In the last year this small agency has lost five case workers due to burn out.

Jennifer Mills says, her cases don't always have the happy ending she'd want. She says you have to feel called to this work. "This is definitely not a job where you go home at night and not think about it."

Mills is checking in with one of her clients: a mother who recently lost custody of her six of kids due to a drug addiction. The young woman, Caroline -- we'll only use her first name because her case is on-going -- has been clean for eight months and Mills says she's shown considerable improvement. Now Caroline's fighting to keep custody of her newborn baby and prove she's overcome her past.

"I love my kids but did I keep messing up yes, did I keep going back failing drug tests yes," admits Caroline.

Mills says her clients either love her or hate her. When Caroline struggled with addiction, it was Mills who carried out the court order to place them in foster care. But now that she's on the path to recovery, Caroline says Mills has given her one more chance at motherhood.

"Jennifer and I we've been rocky," says Caroline, "but this one is way better. This case is way better of course, she's been a lot more helpful and understanding this time."

Before she leaves, Mills checks Caroline's pantry to make sure she has food for the baby, and she swabs the inside of her mouth for a random drug screening. Caroline can still become one of Mill's success stories. For those, she typically earns a "thank you."

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