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Opioids and the foster care crisis

Facing out-of-county, out-of-state placements

News Staff Writer

Adults across the nation have fallen victim to the addictive powers of opium-based prescriptions and other substances — some legal, some not. And, while the focus of the national pandemic has been on the effects these substances have on those adults, the real losers have been the children of the addicts.
Escambia County, Alabama, has seen its share of opioid-driven crime. Officials of the local agency responsible for finding temporary housing for children whose parents are either incarcerated or in drug rehabilitation programs say the need for placing those youngsters has far exceeded the availability of homes willing to accept them.
“We are seeing an increase in overall placements in foster care as a result of both prescription opioids and illegal drugs,” said Lynn Barnes, Director of Escambia County Department of Human Resources. “What is most concerning is the increase we are seeing in polysubstance use and abuse (mixing of drugs) where clients are testing positive for a myriad of drug and/or alcohol combinations. We have also seen an increase in clients with substance-induced psychosis, which is particularly concerning for purposes of child welfare.”
Barnes said the number of children left literally out in the cold has increased at an alarming rate and has far exceeded the availability of local families who will take on the extra responsibility.
“Escambia County DHR currently has 10 in-county foster homes,” Barnes explained. “We have 70 children currently in custody, many of whom entered foster care due to substance use and co-occurring mental health issues. Over half the children in our custody are placed outside the county in congregate care placements, or group homes.”
That has created a situation where siblings are often separated and the children left in the state’s care are far removed from other family members. That in turn taxes DHR’s staff in its oversight of its young wards, who are further scarred emotionally by the situation in which they find themselves.
“The placement of such a large number of children out of the county places a burden on social work staff who are having to travel long distances every month to make contact with the children and check on their welfare,” Barnes said. “These out-of-county placements also create logistical issues with allowing children regular and meaningful contact with family and friends who are in-county.
“When children are placed out of county, they lose their families, friends and communities. This unfortunately sends the message to the child that he or she is being punished or at fault for what has happened in the family. These cumulative losses traumatize children in such a negative way that they many times suffer from mental health issues and substance abuse issues as they grow older, which only perpetuates the cycle.”
The DHR director admitted that many of the drug-abusing parents choose to turn their backs on their offspring rather than participate in rehabilitative programs to help overcome their addiction.
“Of the 70 children now in our custody, 11 have already had parental rights terminated by the courts,” she said. “An additional 40 children either have a plan of being placed with a relative or to have parental rights terminated so that (relatives) can move toward adoption. A staggering number of our county’s children are not going to be returned to their parents due to continued issues with safety in the home.”
She added that a shortage of family members who are immune from the lure of pain killers and other drugs is further compounding the problem, saying that, “as an agency, we have been less able to place children with relatives as in the past because many times all of the relatives have substance use issues, too.”
Maggie Silbernagel, who chairs the county DHR’s board and serves as executive director of Philadelphia Place, agreed that the abuse of drugs and other substances has given birth to a segment of society that no longer cares for its children.
“Once a parent is hooked on any drug, they change,” Silbernagel said. “What could have been loving, nourishing parents leave their children to raise themselves. They just check out.”
Silbernagel admitted that the formation of Philadelphia Place, a home for displaced youth, is still a bit of a pipe dream. So, she said, she will do what she can to help as many youngsters as possible until the home can be formally established.
“It’s a dream, something in the future,” she said. “We do not have the resources in our county to support such an effort at this time, so we will continue to work toward building a foster care village. But meanwhile we will build a foster care support system.”
She agreed that out-of-county placements are bad enough for the disenfranchised youngsters, but pointed out that DHR officials have had to look even farther for qualified homes in which to place them.
“Right now, we have 86 children in Escambia County who are in foster care, and 21 are out-of-county because there are not enough places for our own children,” Silbernagel said. “We have recently made an agreement with Georgia to share our foster children; we’re going to take them out of state, even farther from their families.”
Barnes said the roots of the opioid-drug crisis can be found in an inability to meet the mental health needs of the population and a continuing decline in the nuclear family. She pointed out that until people learn to deal with their problems without the aid of opioids and other substances as a coping mechanism, the crisis will continue to run rampant.
“Until we, as a society, break this cycle, we will continue to see the numbers rise,” she said. “Instead of asking, ‘what’s wrong with you?,’ we should be asking ‘what happened to you?’ We can start by limiting the trauma faced by children entering foster care. These children will suffer loss, but we can treat that loss without adding to it by having loving, caring foster homes in the county to help us.”
Silbernagel encouraged anyone who might be willing to help alleviate the problem, no matter what degree of help that person might can provide, to step forward.
“Our children are falling through the cracks right this minute,” she said. “If we don’t catch them, we lose them. We need people who are willing to be foster parents. It takes all of us.
“If they can’t take a child in, they can volunteer by being a mentor, teaching these children a specific skill. We need drivers who can take them to their doctor’s appointments; we need people who can provide respite care to give foster families a short break, and we need money to help meet the needs of these children. Clothes, shoes, it adds up.”
Anyone willing to pitch in financially can do so by sending tax-deductible donations to Philadelphia Place, P.O. Box 919, Flomaton, AL 36441.