The drug epidemic in West Virginia affects more than just the work force, or the number of people in a prison cell or treatment center. It’s also had a major impact on the state’s foster children. West Virginia Public Broadcasting introduces the Holben family who has seen the impacts of the drug epidemic first-hand.
Meet the Holbens
Alyssa Holben is 8-years-old and in second grade. She came to live with the Holbens as an infant; first as a foster child and was later adopted.
Alyssa’s older and biological sister, Aaliyah, was also adopted by the Holbens, at 2-years-old. She’s now 10, in the fourth grade, and is shyer than her little sister.
Both girls love church, gymnastics, Disney movies and their 2-year-old brother, Brayden.
You would never know, but all three kids were exposed to drugs or alcohol in utero.
Alyssa was born addicted to heroin. Her older sister, Aaliyah, was born with fetal alcohol syndrome. And their little brother, Brayden, who’s not biologically related to the girls, was born addicted to three different kinds of drugs.
Jen and Jamie Holben, the children’s parents, live in Kearneysville, Jefferson County, with their six kids, four of whom were adopted through the state’s foster care system. The Holbens have been foster parents for nearly 13 years and have fostered almost 30 children during that time – ranging in age from infant to 18.
“We wanted to help out in some way, I mean, because I think we’re all here to make a difference," Jamie said, "and we were very driven, whether it’s from our past hurts from us growing up as kids, or just seeing this world be cruel to people, you know, just wanting to make a difference.”
Jamie is a police officer who works in nearby Loudoun County, Va., and Jen is a stay-at-home mom.
The Holbens say one of the biggest struggles they’ve found raising their three kids who were born addicted to drugs and alcohol is the medical and academic problems that come with it.
“The three children we have in this house that have been affected by drugs and alcohol are totally different," Jen noted, "They all have their own different disabilities and struggles. Brayden has three holes in his heart; Alyssa had a heart murmur when she was little, and academically, both girls struggle in different places.”
Alyssa and Aaliyah see their doctor every six months. Both girls take medication for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Alyssa also takes medicine to help her fall asleep at night. And Aaliyah takes one for epilepsy.
While Jen said Brayden seems to be developing in line with other children his age, she and her husband, Jamie, wonder how the kids’ individual struggles will affect them when they’re older.
“I think one of our biggest battles is, is there gonna be a plateau? Are they gonna reach a certain limit, and then, that’s it?” Jamie said. “We don’t know, and there’s no doctor that can give you that answer, there’s no psychologist, psychiatrist that can give you that answer, just because they don’t know.”
Effects on the Foster Care System in West Virginia
At the end of August, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources had 5,068 children in foster care, 274 of whom are in out-of-state placements.
Only about 1,500 of those children are available for adoption, according to the West Virginia Supreme Court. Justice Brent Benjamin said that’s because some are placed in foster care temporarily.
“In many cases, they’re in temporary situations because maybe mom or dad are going through an improvement period," Benjamin said, "because there’s been an abuse-neglect issue, or there could be any number of issues there, but they’re in foster care on a temporary basis as opposed to something that is more long term.”
But just how many of those children are in foster care because of their parents’ problems with drugs or alcohol?
Linda Watts, Deputy Commissioner for the Bureau for Children and Families at DHHR, said that number is difficult to track.
“Sometimes the reason that you’re removing a child for abuse-neglect is not necessarily the primary reason is substance abuse; it could be for another issue say physical abuse; it could be neglect, it could be some other related issue and then as you continue to do your investigation, it may then surface that it was substance use and abuse,” Watts said.
“What we’re seeing is that drugs may not be the primary issue in the abuse-neglect case, but it is certainly a driving issue in over 95 percent of those cases, so it’s a profound driving force in issues related to the welfare of children.” - Justice Brent Benjamin
Abigayle Koller is a clinical coordinator with the West Virginia National Youth Advocate Program, which is one of 10 specialized foster care agencies in West Virginia.
Koller said it can also be difficult to provide foster parents with the information they need to deal with the possible medical or developmental issues associated with substance abuse, because sometimes children's birth or medical records are never provided to the agency and can’t be tracked down.
“So we often treat what we see," Koller said, "which doesn’t do justice when a lot of the needs are underlying, and we have to dig, and we have to start with what we see in order to uncover what we don’t see.”
Being a Foster Parent
Jen Holben said she and her husband knew when they adopted Alyssa, Aaliyah and Brayden, that drugs or alcohol had been in their systems before birth, but she said that doesn’t always make addressing their needs any easier. While the demand for foster families in West Virginia is growing, Jen said it takes special people to do it.
“If you’re gonna go pick up a baby from a hospital, know that baby can scream for four months, because he’s addicted to drugs," she said, "or know that, that child might have developmental delays, and be okay in accepting. You’ve got to be accepting of not just the children, but be accepting of their biological parents, and you have to support what that biological parent is doing to get their kid back.”
Jen and Jamie say they never expected to be where they are today, but they’re grateful for each of their kids -- adopted and fostered. They hope the state can make the overall foster system better, especially for the kids who slip through the cracks.
Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from the Benedum Foundation.