Athens Children Services Sees Rise in Drug-Related Foster Cases

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As Athens County and the rest of the state of Ohio work to combat the heroin and opioid epidemic plaguing the state, children are not immune to its lasting effects.

The number of children coming into the agency’s custody in cases related to drug use has gone steadily up, according to Cathy Hill, executive director of Athens County Children Services.

“We have had increasing numbers of referrals for children, for child abuse and neglect, related to drug abuse,” Hill said. “We have more children in custody and that’s trending upward across the whole state, but also here in Athens County,” said Hill.

According to Hill, 70 to 80 children should be in custody for a county the size of Athens. Right now, Athens County has about 112 children.

“We really are definitely pushing the envelope with kids coming into care because of parental drug abuse,” said Hill.

Data from the Public Children Services Association of Ohio shows a 19 percent increase, (or 2,000 children) in custody since 2009. There’s been a 6.7 percent increase, (or 1,000 children) in just the last year and a half.

This statewide data also shows that half of the children taken into custody in 2015 had parental drug use.

But, while the numbers of children in foster care continue to increase, state funding is decreasing. Since 2008, there’s been a 17 percent decrease in state funding.

Hill says Athens County Children Services is getting younger children in care than they have in a long time.

“We have babies that are newborn, that haven’t even left the hospital yet that come into custody,” said Hill.

The agency found that another outcome of the drug addiction epidemic going on in the community is kids staying in care longer.

“We have them in custody, and they tend to stay in custody longer than other children, because addiction is a tough issue,” Hill said. “It’s a tough issue to get parents to engage in treatment, and to follow through. So, it takes quite a bit of time.”

Along with the growing number of foster children comes a shortage of foster homes in Athens County, and Hill said counties surrounding Athens are having similar issues.

“We’re always needing to recruit and train new foster parents to look after children,” she said.

It takes about six months to license a foster family. Athens County Children Services said they work hard to ensure that foster parents are well-trained.

Foster parents go through 36 hours of pre-service training. Parents have a home study and then have a safety audit in their home. They must also have references and a background check.

“We do a thorough job of working with them to make sure that children are going to be safe and well cared-for in their homes,” said Hill.

Athens County Children Services also provides ongoing support and training to foster families. There are foster care workers who visit families in their homes to make sure everything is going well.

However, according to Hill, they are becoming more successful in reuniting children with their biological parents.

“More than half of the children that are coming into care are actually reunified with their parents,” said Hill.

She says another 20 percent are going to live with relatives.

Hill says one of the cardinal values is to reunite children with their biological parents.

“We want to keep families together whenever we can, if children are safe,” Hill said. “If they’re not safe in their own homes than we do have to bring them into foster care, and then we work hard to get them back together as soon as it’s safe to do that.”

In 46 out of Ohio’s 88 counties, there is a levy for children services. Athens County is part of a three county levy, along with Hocking and Vinton counties. Athens County has two levies, each 1-mill.

Homeowners of a $100,000 home pay about $58.97 per year for the levy. The Athens-Hocking-Vinton 317 Board, an agency that works to find funding for drug abuse and awareness programs, has a levy based in Athens County which will be up for renewal in 2017.

Hill says there are many other ways that people in the community can help.

“It just depends on what works best for people,” she said. “We do have community and university-based volunteers that will work to help with our visitation or with tutoring, or mentoring with children.”

Contact Athens County Children Services for more information at (740) 592-3061.