Parents, who faced addiction and recovered in the county, spoke to Congressman Brad Wenstrup, a Republican representing the 2nd congressional district in Ohio, on Aug. 15.
The parents and Wenstrup were joined by county and state officials with children welfare services and Clermont County Juvenile Judge James Shriver, to discuss how best to help children affected by the opioid crisis. Wenstrup sits on the House Ways and Means subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over child welfare issues.
Tim Dick, assistant director of Children’s Protective Services (CPS), was also on hand to discuss the Family First Prevention Services Act and introduce Judge James Shriver, who oversees the Family Dependency Treatment Court in the county.
The Family First Prevention Services Act aims to prevent children from entering foster care by allowing federal reimbursement for mental health services, substance use treatment, and in-home parenting skill training. It also seeks to improve the well-being of children already in fostercare by incentivizing states to reduce placement of children in congregate care.
In February of 2018, the act passed as part of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018.
To understand how Clermont got to this point of trying something different with its court system and CPS, one only has to look at the opioid epidemic. In a report published by Public Children Services Association of Ohio in December 2017, Ohio’s children services agencies were “being overwhelmed by the number of opioid-affected children coming into foster care.”
As an example, in 2013, 12,654 kids were in foster care for opioid-related reasons across the state of Ohio. In 2017, that number had climbed to 15,500 and with that increase also comes an increase in monies, from $275 million in 2013 to $375 million in 2017.
In Clermont in particular, 155 children were in the care of CPS, with the agency working with an additional 552 children. Not all are the result of opioid issues, Dick said in a press release, but many of them are.
One of the issues is not enough local foster families, so children, 57 in total, that are taken in by CPS are often sent to neighboring counties. Some, 18 in total, were placed out-of-state.
“What we recognized was that what we were doing wasn’t effective,” Dick said at the roundtable. “We weren’t keeping kids out of the system; we were struggling with reunifications. And knew we had to take a much different approach, if we were going to have a positive impact on kids and families.”
Change manifested in the way CPS engaged with the families, which meant more listening and addressing those issues.
Another one of those ways was the introduction of the Community Alternative Sentencing Center in 2013, but which was re-opened in 2015 under new management by Greater Cincinnati Behavioral Health, taking a more holistic health approach.
So, CPS in conjunction with CASC, are working to help parents and keep families together.
All of which is paired with Shriver’s Family Dependency Treatment Court, which started in 2014, and works to reunite families, as parents complete the program.
Angela Livesay with the Family Dependency Treatment Court, walked the roundtable through the services offered to parents through this program.
She said when parents with abuse issues come into the system, the protocol is essentially: substance use disorder treatment, wherein parents must immediately go into treatment and medication-assisted treatment, if necessary, along with twice-weekly drug-screenings and mental health treatment, as necessary. There’s also medical care available since those with substance abuse issues likely haven’t had a medical checkup in some time. Finally, each parent is given a recovery coach, who gives them transportation to not just treatment, but also work, which enables housing and income. Coupled with the latter, life skills, like budgeting and how to obtain a valid driver’s license, is taught to the parents as well.
It typically takes a parent a year to go through this system, with most staying in the system for up to 18 months, Livesay added.
“You’ll find out that all of our services are geared towards getting rid of any barriers to possibly getting in the way of the parents way reunifying with their child,” she said.
Livesay noted that 69 percent of parents who have been with the program at least six months are reunited with their children.
Steve, one of the parents at the round table, who has gone through the program, shared his story with Wenstrup.
He said he was raped when he was younger and he believes that was the start of his drug use.
Steve and his wife, Betsy’s, entry into the program started, however, when their twins were born opioid-positive two years ago, which via the hospital, triggered CPS.
People didn’t suspect Steve, he said, because he was a functioning alcohol addict, working long hours every day. Now, Steve is 10-years sober from alcohol.
Then while working, Steve broke his leg and soon was addicted to pain pills and before long, heroin.
“It helped me out a lot; it’s helped us out a lot,” Steve said, about the program. “It was relieving to find out that there’s people who actually care and they cared more about keeping our kids with us and returning us to a happy family.”
Their kids, which includes four others, with the oldest being a 14-year-old, said it was nice to have their dad and mom back.
Steve said CPS isn’t there to “destroy families; they’re there to build them back up.”
Betsy said she grew up with parents and grandparents who were addicts and she’s even used with her parents. Similar to Steve, Betsy had started using pain pills after a back injury, which evolved into using heroin.
Once she was pregnant with the twins, she was terrified that once she had them, they’d be taken away. And she didn’t understand how to get help and cope with the stress. It was one of the lowest points in her life, she said, noting that she didn’t think she’d make it to today.
Through treatment Betsy said she realized she needed to take control of her life.
“Being a mom is my life,” she said. “As much as I love my kids, I could not stop using for my kids, I had to do it for me. They were my motivation, but it had to be from me first.”
The kids were never removed from the home, like they perhaps would have been two years ago, Dick said. Instead, there was a voluntary safety plan in place and Steve, at one point, was removed from the home so as to not impact Betsy’s road to sobriety.
Dick said, if the kids had been removed, then what’s the motivation? That’s something he said he’s heard a lot from those in recovery. The safety plan and alternative response is preferable to going to the courts and having the kids placed in foster care, he said.
CPS’s new approach has been why children in foster care has dropped from that high in 2013 to just 170 today.
“I’m definitely thankful for the alternative response, for them to work with us. It did save my life,” Betsy said.
Lorraine Brock, 37, who graduated from the program back in July and has five children, also told her story.
Shriver said she was one of the “shining stars” of the program.
“I’ve struggled with addiction for 24 years,” she said. “I’ve been a heroin addict for 12 years.”
Lorraine was first involved with CPS when her oldest daughter, who was 14 at the time, called CPS on her, because she found needles and drugs. At the time, Lorraine was working at Frisch’s, which was to pay for hotels and drugs while the oldest daughter took care of the other children.
“It’s hard to say, but I didn’t care about my kids. I didn’t care about anything,” Lorraine said.
If it wasn’t for Livesay, Lorraine said she doesn’t know where she’d be.
“Addiction is losing your children; it’s fighting for your life. When you have people who are willing to be there and help you and say, ‘Hey, do something. We’ve got your back, but you gotta do it,’” she said. “If I don’t take care of Lorraine, there is no mom … if I don’t take care of myself and sobriety.”
Wenstrup fingered the pharmaceutical industry for driving the problem of heroin.
“How can you go to medical school and come out and decide that’s how you’re going to make your living, is prescribing these drugs?” he said.
This has crossed everyone, Wenstrup added, saying it’s not confined to any one socioeconomic class or anything else.
Wenstrup said these problems are better served by the local agencies.
“You don’t want somebody in Washington D.C. to try and handle your transportation problems,” he said. “The best thing we can do from Washington is to assist this and make things more possible at the local level because it’s my experience is it can only work as we’re sitting here right now.”
He added, “Thanks for your input; it’s very helpful, obviously. We’ll try and do our best and be as helpful as we can with things that are working and making a difference.”