It’s like fighting a wildfire with a bucket of water.
That’s how Robin Reese, executive director of Lucas County Children Services, feels every day when she walks into her Adams Street office in downtown Toledo and checks the numbers.
More than 140 more children need foster care than at this time last year, and those already in foster care are staying there longer. It has become all the more common to find caseworkers at the office late, scrambling to find a safe place for yet another child to sleep that night.
“This has to be the worst I’ve seen in my 33 years,” Mrs. Reese said. “And I say that without having to really think hard.”
Mrs. Reese, who became executive director in September, 2015, attributes the steady increase in both children who need foster care and the duration they spend in the system to the opioid epidemic gripping the region.
The Lucas County Coroner’s Office, which tracks drug fatalities in a 21-county area of northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan, recorded 288 fatal opioid overdoses in the region in 2016 — the most recent year with available numbers. That was up from 215 overdose deaths in 2015 and 145 in 2014.
Of 2016’s 288 overdose deaths in the area, 151 were in Lucas County, and more than half contained fentanyl, a synthetic opioid up to 50 times more potent than heroin.
Over the years Mrs. Reese has witnessed different drugs take hold of communities and splinter families. But the opioid problem is different, she said, and it’s overwhelming child welfare agencies throughout the state.
“The difference in this one is that parents seem to have lost the will to get their children back,” she said. “Whereas before, you could give parents a case plan. They’d get into treatment, we’d give them parenting classes and counseling, and they got their children back.”
In 2015, half of Ohio children taken into agency custody had parents who were using drugs, and 28 percent had parents using opioids, according to data from the Public Children Services Association of Ohio, a Columbus-based nonprofit that represents the state’s child welfare agencies and advocates on their behalf.
When a child is removed from his or her birth family, caseworkers first screen other relatives or family friends who could care for the child before they turn to foster care. But placing children with relatives or kin has become increasingly difficult because opioid addiction is often multi-generational, said Yvette Muhammad, licensing supervisor for Lucas County Children Services.
“I remember one family I worked with, the mom, who was a young 20-something-year-old girl, and a father, who was similar in age, and even the grandmother all overdosed on the same weekend,” Ms. Muhammad said.
The goal of foster care is to provide children a safe, healthy environment while the agency works with the child’s birth parents to create stability and reunite the family, Mrs. Reese said. But when reunification isn’t an option, continued foster care or adoption is the solution, and Mrs. Reese is desperate for families willing to take children in.
Always a need
As Mrs. Reese and her team worked through mounting case files, across town Ashley and Andrew Harbert set plates of pasta, fruit, and yogurt in front of their four squirmy, smiley kids. The then-family of six bowed their heads to say a quick prayer of thanks.
It was a typical weeknight at the Harbert’s South Toledo household: family dinner, play time in the backyard, and story time before bed.
All four of the couple’s children at the time — three toddlers and one middle-schooler — came to the Harberts through Lucas County Children Services’ foster care program.
The couple adopted two, a third has since reunited with biological family, and the middle school-age child remains under the couple’s foster care.
Adopted or foster, the Harberts love each child the same.
“The kids that come in, they’re mine,” Mrs. Harbert said. “Even if they come for a day. They’re mine. They’re ours.”
Mrs. Harbert, 27, and Mr. Harbert, 29, had talked about growing their family through adoption for years. In May, 2014, they signed up for the classes required to become certified as a foster family in Ohio.
“The benefits of doing foster care is not just the possibility of adoption, because you don’t always know it’s going to go that way,” Mrs. Harbert said. “We knew we wanted to help children and help families in our community.”
Their license was approved in late August, 2014, and they didn’t have to wait long to become parents.
On Sept. 2, 2014, Mrs. Harbert was doing laundry at her parents’ house in Toledo after a Labor Day weekend camping trip when her cellphone buzzed. A few hours later, she and Mr. Harbert were in the Lucas County Children Services parking lot, ready to pick up their first child from her temporary guardian.
“I remember she said, ‘She’s right in the back of the car,’ and I looked in and there were these big watery eyes and all this curly hair. I was instantly in love with her,” Mrs. Harbert said.
That child eventually reunited with family, as did the Harberts’ second foster daughter.
“You just pray that something stuck out of the time that you have with them,” Mr. Harbert said. “It never seems like enough.”
The Harberts continued to keep their home and hearts open. When the agency called with a child in need, they were ready.
“In a lot of their situations, their parents love them, but they don’t choose them first,” Mrs. Harbert said. “And when they’re here with us, they’re going to be chosen first every day. It’s about them.”
Over the summer Mrs. Harbert called her caseworker to let her know the couple was prepared to take in an older foster child. She knew many foster families prefer to take in babies, but kids can be in foster care until they are 18 or until they graduate high school. With the Harberts’ setup, they have the ability take in 6- to 10-year-olds.
“And I said, ‘I hope that you don’t call me with one.’ That would be my dream, that we don’t need it,” Mrs. Harbert said. “But with the things that our country and our community are facing, I think that we, for the foreseeable future, always will.”
A statewide issue
The spike in children coming into agency custody is a statewide trend.
Ohio child welfare agencies watched their numbers grow from 12,383 children in custody in 2010 to 13,719 in 2016, Public Children Services Association of Ohio data shows.
Children also are staying in foster care longer. The median number of days a child was in care grew from 202 in 2010 to 240 in 2016.
“This is particularly heartbreaking because Ohio actually lead the nation between 2002 and 2010 in safely reducing the number of children we had in out-of-home care,” said Scott Britton, assistant director of Public Children Services Association of Ohio. “We reduced our numbers by 42 percent. Now our numbers are inching up, largely due to the opioid epidemic.”
The cost of placing children in care has also surged statewide, from $275 million in 2013 to more than $330 million in 2016. Of that roughly $330 million, 42 percent were costs associated with drug-related cases.
In Lucas County, children services is spending an unprecedented $1.1 million a month on placement calls. The agency’s 2018 budget is $48.2 million, an increase from 2017’s $45.5 million budget.
Licensed foster homes in Lucas County reached a 10-year low at the end of 2015, down to 215 families compared to 380 in 2006.
It was about that time Mrs. Reese said she realized the opioid epidemic wasn’t going to let up, and she had limited foster homes available for the influx of kids in need of a safe place to stay.
In the spring of 2016 Mrs. Reese made an announcement: The agency was launching “Mission: Possible,” a campaign to recruit 400 new foster homes by the end of that year.
“Kids can’t sleep in this building,” she said. “You can do the numbers. It tells you that our folks are doubling and tripling up.”
In 2012, 921 children were in the agency’s custody for at least one day, which means they were either in foster care, a group home setting, or kinship placement. That number climbed to 988 in 2015, to 1,139 in 2016, and to 1,387 in 2017.
Almost two years after “Mission: Possible” launched, Lucas County Children Services is still working to recruit enough foster homes. Officials licensed 72 new homes in 2017, 67 of which were able to foster. The other five adopted.
“I’m still trying to get the 400,” Mrs. Reese said. “Four-hundred stable homes.”
An open heart
It’s a challenging time for recruitment. The recession hit Ohio families hard, and many foster parents had to take second jobs or take in kids in their own families rather than continue to foster, children services spokesman Julie Malkin said.
A number of repeat foster parents are Baby Boomers, and they won’t all be able to continue to take in children as they age, Ms. Malkin added.
“We want to challenge the Millennials to come forward,” Mrs. Reese said.
The Harberts said they’ve confronted various misconceptions throughout their time as foster parents, particularly the notion that all kids taken from their birth parents have behavioral issues. It’s true that many have experienced trauma, but that’s all the more reason to provide them with a safe home, Mr. Harbert said.
“They need to learn unconditional love. They need to see that, and see stable structure and people in their lives,” he said. “I don’t think they need to be pitied or spoiled. They’re way more grown up than they should be for their age, and they just need to be treated like normal kids.”
Interested foster parents must be 21 or older and complete 36 hours of training before they can be licensed. Applicants can be married or single, and it doesn’t matter if they’re homeowners or renting.
Lucas County Children Services gives foster parents an allowance per child that starts at $15 a day and can be negotiated up based on each child’s age, needs, and whether the foster parent transports the child for appointments.
The rate can rise up into the hundreds of dollars per day for children with exceptional developmental and behavioral needs, Ms. Malkin said.
The agency also provides help purchasing car seats, clothing, and tickets to activities such as the Toledo Zoo and Aquarium, among other things.
“You don’t need to have a lot of physical things, or a lot of room in your home, or a lot of money to do this,” Mrs. Harbert said. “You just need to have an open heart.”