In 2015, Athens County Children Services had 146 children in their custody — a 7 percent increase from 2014.
Aside from children in official custody, Children Services received a “record” 2,070 referrals of child abuse and neglect, according to their 2015 annual report. Children Services, and the foster families they facilitate, are often the cushion children fall to during that time of limbo.
“Athens County Children Services currently has 38 licensed foster homes, but is in desperate need for more foster families,” Tanja Kuhre, a recruiter and trainer for Children Services, said in a statement.
Children may be removed from their homes after abuse and neglect due for a variety of other reasons, including parental drug abuse. But part of the reason for the increase of children in Children Services' custody is the opiate abuse problem in Athens County and in Ohio in general, Robin Webb, the public relations and event coordinator for the agency, said.
“More parents, who are often young themselves, are becoming addicted to heroin and other opiates, and consequently aren’t able to care for their children,” Webb said in an email. “Children are coming into our custody at much younger ages, and on average staying in our care longer than they have in the past.”
Michele Papai, a licensed professional clinical supervisor and an independent chemical dependency counselor, who has extensive experience working with foster children, agreed opiates were a factor in the jump in foster cases.
"If we look at the increases, we see an exponential rise in parental substance abuse," Papai, who is also the Democratic councilwoman for the Third Ward, said. "(This is) mostly in the area of opiate addiction, and that’s across the spectrum. That could be pills, it could be heroin."
According to a report by the Ohio Department of Health, opioids, including heroin, fentanyl and prescription drugs, were involved in 84.9 percent of drug overdoses in Ohio in 2015.
Papai also said foster parents are very important to a’s healing process. Particularly for children dealing with trauma, she said, a stable adult caretaker is essential.
“You need to know that there is a supportive, understanding, protective adult who can be there to support the kids’ recovery,” Papai said.
Those interested in becoming foster families first make an inquiry to a Children Services recruiter. Then, after attending an optional information meeting, they must complete 36 hours of preservice training, complete an application, participate in a home study and, finally, receive official license if all is in order.
To help foster families support children as well as they can, each one is assigned a designated placement caseworker.
"All caseworkers are required to have monthly contact with everyone on their caseload who have placements in their home," Kuhre said in a statement. "The caseworkers serve as support systems to their families in a number of other ways."
Placement caseworkers may assist foster parents in cases where the foster child is acting disruptive, and also help them stay organized with monthly paperwork.
Alternatively, Ongoing Family Services Caseworkers are assigned to all foster children and their biological parents, and they can assist with tasks like enrolling children in school and signing up for counseling services. The involvement with biological parents can also continue in other ways.
Most parents are able to visit their children two times per week at the agency's visitation center, unless the agency's workers have safety concerns or think it is in the best interests of the children to not visit with their parents.
"Otherwise, Athens County Children Services takes great strides to ensure that children in our care are given opportunities to have quality visits with their biological parents," Kuhre said.
Visitation facilities have games, playground equipment, a basketball court and other activities for parents and children. Children Services also organizes group activities and assists with transportation for biological parents when needed.
The agency will continue to provide these services and facilitate foster families — perhaps on an even larger scale. As of the end of August, Children Services has had 135 children in custody this year.
"The 2016 data that is available at this time shows that we are on pace to end the year with (a) significant increase to the total number of children we had in care," Webb said in an email.