I’ve got a placement.”
Terrie Brown got up from her dining-room table and walked just out of earshot from the college representative sitting with her eldest son and husband. It was after 6 p.m. on a warm April evening in Belpre, Ohio.
“Well, right now we’re in the middle of signing papers for Garrett to go to college,” she told the caseworker on the phone. “What do you got?”
“We’ve got this baby and we need a placement – now.”
Terrie hung up the phone and walked back to the dining room. She looked at her husband Burton.
“They got this baby. We’re on beeper. We’ve got to take it,” she said. “We have a placement coming.”
For Burton and Garrett Brown, this was business as usual. Terrie turned and apologetically made eye contact with the representative.
“We can’t help it; it’s our job,” she said.
As they waited for their new arrival, the Browns continued asking about housing options, but Terrie’s attention wavered.
Do I have a crib? Clothes? Diapers?
The representative said on-campus housing would not be provided to students.
Where will Garrett live? How will we find him housing?
It had been a while since the last time they had a baby to foster.
What about a bottle? Does it even need a bottle? Pacifiers?
Thoughts continued to run through her mind until a caseworker pulled into the driveway an hour later with the baby. Terrie stood up, went out the door and heard crying. As she walked to the car, Terrie’s middle child, Ben, walked into the yard with Garrett and his girlfriend.
Like many infants from drug-affected homes, the baby had cried for the duration of the hour-long ride to Belpre. Terrie approached the car and extended her arms, cradling the infant in her arms.
The crying stopped.
OHIO’S OPIOID EPIDEMIC is seen as the direct cause of an 11 percent increase in children in state custody over the past six years, according to the Public Children Services Association of Ohio.
In the past eight years, Terrie Brown has seen more than 20 children of varying ages come into her home; she’s adopted three of them, and another three are her and Burton’s adult biological children.
“One day we sat down for Sunday dinner and there was nobody there,” she recalled. “I fixed a big meal, and I just started crying ’cause I had nobody to take care of anymore. My husband looks at me and says ‘Why don’t you call the agency?’”
The thought had always been in Terrie’s mind, so much so that her husband once told a caseworker that he knew he would be a foster parent the day he married her.
But Terrie’s involvement with the foster-care system began nearly 40 years ago when she was just 12 years old. After her mother died, she was sent to 14 homes over the course of a year until she was adopted at the age of 13 by Bill and Betty Lowe. The Lowes, now both in their 80s, continue to foster children as they have done for the past 46 years.
And as with Terrie’s own adoptive parents, fostering kids in need is a full-time job. In 2009, Terrie quit her job at a plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia to focus all her energy on the new endeavor.
“I consider foster parenting a calling,” she said. “Foster parents are called to do this job, because not everybody can do this job. It’s a hard job; it’s a rewarding job.”
But people like Terrie and her husband come few and far between in Athens and neighboring counties such as Washington, where the Browns live. The need for foster parents has grown while the opioid epidemic impacts families in Appalachia and across the United States.
Around 15,000 children are in the state of Ohio’s foster-care system while only 7,200 families are registered to take them in, according to a press release issued last week by Ohio Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Mike DeWine.
DeWine addressed the issue in a press conference Thursday (Aug. 24), where he urged more Ohioans to become foster parents, after his office initiated changes he said should make the process simpler. Those changes include a webpage and email address specifically for foster families and $1 million in grants to fund staff and recruit foster families in “hard-hit counties.”
In its 2016 annual report, Athens County Children Services (ACCS), which is the agency that has worked with the Browns, reported a total of 36 foster homes licensed with the agency compared to 47 homes in 2010.
During that same time period, the number of children in ACCS custody has increased. From 2015 to 2016, the children in the agency’s care rose from 146 to 179 – nearly a 23 percent increase.
“Over the years… things have changed and a lot of that is due to the opioid addiction and crisis that we’re kind of facing in our rural communities,” said Angie Blakeman, placement supervisor at ACCS.
Of the 84 new custody cases ACCS handled in 2016, 43 percent involved drug-impacted children and 14 percent involved drug-impacted infants.
Since she starting working at ACCS nearly two decades ago, Blakeman said the secondary effects of opioid use by parents has become more prominent in the past six to seven years, with abuse and neglect being telltale signs.
“We weren’t seeing families being as neglectful as they are now, because honestly there’ll be times when we get cases or we’ll hear of cases where somebody dropped their child off and were gone for three or four days, you know, and you just didn’t have cases like that back then,” Blakeman said. “A lot of these kids don’t have their basic needs met. They’re used to being left to their own wills. A lot of times they don’t have a lot of structure so they’re not used to routines.”
An April 2016 survey by the Public Children Services Association of Ohio found that 50 percent of all children taken into state custody in 2015 had parents with drug-abuse issues. Opiate addictions accounted for more than a quarter of those cases.
In addition to the uptick in children in state custody, youths taken from drug-affected homes often have behavioral and psychological issues, Blakeman said. In some cases, these issues stem from the mother’s substance abuse during pregnancy.
“I do think that foster parents are receiving a tremendous burden in taking care of children who have been exposed to a variety of stressful events,” said Julie Owens, an Ohio University psychology professor who specializes in juvenile attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
In addition to her research, Owens also serves as co-director of OU’s Center for Intervention Research in Schools, which aims to help children and adolescents with emotional and behavioral problems through school-based interventions and support. Though research on the correlation between parental-drug use and conditions such as ADHD are not definitive, Owens said she has seen an increase in the past few years of children with behavioral issues.
“I would say that teachers are complaining or they are seeing more challenging children coming into their classrooms,” Owens said.
Though Terrie Brown said she has dealt with several children with behavioral issues, she has only fostered one child who was born addicted to drugs. She later adopted that same child, who is now 3 years old, after he spent two weeks in the hospital being weaned off his addiction at just 6 weeks old.
“With infants, they go through withdrawals, tremors,” Brown said. “They go sleepless nights, many, many sleepless nights, crying constantly and then when they get into toddlers, little older, then you start dealing with the behaviors where the drugs, you know, from where it messes with the brain at that point.”
FOSTER PARENTS LIKE THE BROWNS often are also the first source of discipline for children from drug-affected families who have been heavily neglected. Brown said she has dealt with children as old as 5 who did not know basic skills such as using utensils for food, dressing themselves or brushing their teeth.
It’s also common for older children who enter the foster system with siblings to have trouble adjusting to their newest role – being a kid.
“A lot of these children have taken on parenting roles,” Blakeman said. “A lot of times, if they’ve got younger siblings, they’re the ones who are feeding or changing diapers or even sometimes disciplining siblings.”
At the state level, these type of issue have not gone unnoticed, but until recently, funding to address the problems has been slim. Ohio ranks 50th in the country for total expenditures for state share of children services, according to the Public Children Services Association of Ohio 2017 report.
In March, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine announced the creation of a pilot program, dubbed Ohio START, to specifically target children and parents affected by the opioid epidemic in 18 Ohio counties, including Athens.
“The goal of this program is to stabilize families harmed by parental drug use so that both kids and parents can recover and move forward with abuse-free and addiction-free lives,” DeWine said in a press release.
In the past two years, Ohio has seen a significant increase in federal Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) funds, from $16 million in the 2014-15 fiscal year to nearly $70 million in the current fiscal year, said Jill Del Greco, a spokesperson for the Attorney General’s office. The majority of the Ohio START program will be funded through a $3.5 million VOCA grant made possible through the increase, Del Greco said.
Lapses in state and federal funding are felt by ACCS, Blakeman acknowledged, but a local property tax levy has been able to cover the majority of the agency’s budget. The latest decade-long levy was responsible for $3.8 million in funding – nearly half of the agency’s yearly expense for 2015.
Funds from the levy are partially used by the agency to reimburse foster parents for clothing, food, travel, and other costs a child may need while in care.
Those reimbursements, Terrie Brown said, ease the tension of the job by preventing foster families from incurring any additional costs. In addition, personal characteristics such as one’s marital status or sexual orientation do not disqualify someone from becoming a foster parent.
“If I could say one thing to our community, it would be to look into your heart and see if you can find a place for a kid,” she said. “Just look in your heart, and if it’s not being a foster parent, look into another way that you can help this whole epidemic of the opiates.”
“Everybody thinks ‘This couldn’t happen to me,’” she said of opioid addiction, “and truth be known, it could.”