RAVENNA -- Portage County Children Services is in crisis.
As the opioid and heroin epidemic sweeps across Ohio, local agencies like Portage County Job and Family Services are seeing a dramatic influx in "secondhand victims" -- the children of addicts.
Since the beginning of 2017, more than 80 children have been taken into the custody or removed from a situation by Portage County Children's services. In March alone, 40 children from across the county were taken in.
As of late April, PCCS had more than 200 children in its custody, an increase of 50 compared with the same time last year.
"We haven't had more than 200 kids in a decade," said Tammy Devine, Portage Children Services Agency administrator. "We've taken in the same amount of kids in three months that we took in during eight months last year. And it's mostly because of heroin.
"Six years ago when I started working here, the residential treatment centers were begging for kids, basically. Now, they're so full, they're turning away kids. It's unbelievable. I've been doing child welfare for 30 years now and I've never seen anything like this."
In 2016, JFS took in 161 children, compared to 150 in 2015, an 11 percent increase. On average for 2016, 163 children were in custody, and at one point, the agency had 383 children in its custody.
Kellijo Jeffries, the director of JFS, indicated that 89 of the 163 -- 55 percent -- were removed from their living situation primarily because of substance abuse, mostly heroin and methamphetamines. The state average was 50 percent. That percentage is also slightly higher since the beginning of 2017.
Many children, known as secondhand victims, come into the system after their parents overdose, while only a few come in because their parents are in jail, Devine said.
"This crisis crosses all socioeconomic classes, not just the people living in poverty. It doesn't discriminate," Jeffries said. "There's a stigma that it's only those in poverty that are dealing with it, but it's not. That is new to our system, because we typically see those struggling in poverty and that's not a reality anymore when it comes to opiates."
Children's services often gets a stigma of "taking someone's kids away," Jeffries said. But the top priority is the safety and welfare of the entire family.
With the influx of children and cases, the agency is also struggling to find foster homes within the county that will take these children. There currently are 41 licensed homes, with 11 pending. But not all of those are capable of caring for teens.
JFS has increased funding to the tune of $25,250 per year toward its independent living program, placing teens old enough for apartments or dorms in those spots. Per home, the average cost is $852 per month.
But the outliers include homes for special needs children that cost upwards of $7,600 per month. In 2016, JFS spent $3.3 million on placement -- a small portion of the $321 million total across the state for foster programs.
Devine said a large number of children are placed with relatives, who are compensated for the service by JFS. But because family groups are now using heroin together, and the average number of relapses due to substance abuse is 5 to 6 times, children's services is having a more difficult time placing children with family.
"We're getting a lot of older kids in care. The system itself, not just Portage County but across the state, nobody wants to take teenagers. And we are in desperate need of people who are willing to be foster parents for 16- and 17-year-olds," Devine said. "These aren't kids with serious problems. They're just teenagers."
The goal is to reunify all kids with parents if possible. But the agencies are fighting an uphill battle with addiction.
"It can be up to two years to reunify a family. We are required by law to attempt to reunify every child with their families," Devine said. "On average, the parent is relapsing 5 to 6 times. That process has to begin again each time. So unfortunately, those teens aren't always reunifying with their parents."
Teenagers bring unique issues to the system, Devine said, especially when they are exposed at an early age to substance abuse. Teens, on average, are more likely to try drugs than younger children.
In February, JFS administrators held a meeting, in conjunction with JFS agencies across the state, with congressmen such as State Sen. John Eklund, who represents Portage County, to ask for an extra $30 million extra in state funding.
"The psychological impacts and support needed for these children are great and the demands placed on our social workers to meet the needs have increased immensely," Jeffries wrote in a letter to Eklund.
In addition to funding foster homes, reunification support networks, and increasing funding to transitional housing programs, JFS also helps older teens graduate from high school and transition into secondary education.
And the increased county caseload is being handled by the same number of social workers, an issue that will soon hit the county hard financially. Devine said her 50 employees are dealing with three times the work as they were even last year, and burnout is setting in.
JFS recently raised employee wages to even be competitive in the job market, Jeffries said, hoping to keep workers there. JFS is now offering secondhand trauma counseling for social workers; those doing the "thankless job" of keeping children safe.
According to the Public Children Service Associates of Ohio, the state has been 50th in the nation for the state funding going toward local agencies since at least 2014. Statewide as of 2016, 76 percent of costs are covered by the local agency, with only 24 percent coming from the state.
In Portage County, the funding gap is more drastic: 93 percent is covered by local sources and only 7 percent is covered by the state. JFS currently has two, countywide operating levies that provide funding to operations.
One levy, which has been on the books since 1985, generates about $1.6 million annually and represents 17.35 percent of the JFS budget.
But those levies are barely enough today, and won't be enough in the coming years, Jeffries believes.
"We don't expect this crisis to let up any time soon. In fact, we're planning for it to get worse," Devine said.
LOOKING TO FUTURE
Jeffries said that if the crisis continues at the current rate, JFS will be forced to take drastic steps ensure the financial feasibility of the agency.
First, JFS will have to ask the county Board of Commissioners for increased funding from the county general fund. With that money, the agency would hire new staff and continue to take "aggressive" efforts to recruit new foster parents.
Second, JFS would seek out-of-county resources for foster care and other treatment. And third, JFS would transition older youth into independent housing sooner than usual in order to free space for younger children.
"It's a travesty that opioids are impacting the county the way that they are," Jeffries said. "And it doesn't look like there's an end in sight."
Jeffries, as head of JFS, is working with other agencies in the county to offer a continuum of care for both children and adults affected by the opioid and heroin epidemic. But addiction touches almost every aspect of JFS's daily work, and the lives of countless families in the county.
"Typically, the top motivation of a parent to get sober is their kids," he said. "But now, with heroin, these people don't even seem to be deterred by death. I can see why people might abuse alcohol or try crack cocaine, because people are literally dropping dead in front of you.
"So you could argue that 'It won't happen to me.' But the chance of people dying from heroin is greater and people are dying everywhere -- and people are still using it," Devine said. "I keep asking myself this question, 'What is the deterrent? If death isn't enough, what is?'"
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