Despite Challenges With Drug Addiction And Child Welfare, Some Find Ways Forward
Within the past decade, the number of children in the state’s foster care system has increased by 67 percent. Approximately 7,000 children are in state custody. The system swelled as the opioid drug epidemic took a significant toll on West Virginians. Parental drug use has been a factor in many cases where children were removed from their homes.
While in recent months referrals to the state’s child welfare system and new case numbers have decreased, a new report from a public policy research center at the University of Chicago says the economic crisis is another significant risk factor for child maltreatment, and more family support is needed to prevent child abuse and neglect.
Meanwhile, delivering support to families in crisis comes with new challenges because of the pandemic.
Joshua Carter, a clinical psychologist with Cabin Creek Health Systems near Charleston, moved addiction treatment services online in the spring due to the pandemic. But during that time, drop-out rates increased as patients struggled to get to the three-month sober mark.
“The big thing we’ve had to do is figure out how to keep everybody connected,” Carter said.
Carter said Zoom meetings weren’t as effective as in-person, and normal program requirements, like volunteer work, had to be scrapped. The pandemic has also created situations that challenge those in recovery.
“We always talk about in group, the three big triggers: that’s time, money and boredom.”
A national survey of more 5,412 adults in the United States conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in June showed that 13.3 percent of respondents had started or increased substance use during the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the number of emergency room visits in the state related to drug overdoses increased this summer when compared to the same time last year.
Some of those struggling with addiction are parents whose children may end up in state custody. Delvin Johnson is the site manager of the Davis Child Emergency Shelter in Charleston, where kids ages 12 to 18 can go until they have a more permanent place in foster care.
“We are resuming some normalcy, kind of,” Johnson said in an interview earlier this fall.
In the spring, the Davis Child Shelter was full and children were staying longer. Since then, children have come and gone, and now a new school year is well underway.
“Youth care workers, you know, myself, the new shelter supervisor, everybody’s basically become teachers,” Johnson said.
There was a scare at the shelter this summer when a staff member tested positive for coronavirus. Kids were quarantined for about a month. Staff could only go between the shelter and their homes.
“We were cleaning a lot during that time, even still do,” said Johnson. “Wearing PPE, the face masks and everything like that.”
Johnson said no one else contracted the virus at the Davis Child Shelter.
According to the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, as of early November, there have been 103 cases of COVID-19 among children in state custody since the pandemic began, with 57 of those cases in children who are at out-of-state facilities.
Hope and healing
In March, foster parent Amber Gaull was caring for her three children and fostering two others, one of whom was close to being reunified with her parents. Then overnight trips to their house stopped, and calls took their place. Gaull said it wasn’t easy to keep a toddler interested in a video call for an hour, but she said it was worth it.
“If they’re seeing their baby on the phone, once a week, twice a week, that gives them a goal to shoot for,” said Gaull. “Otherwise, especially with the drugs, it’s easy to slide back into something that’s not so conducive to healing.”
Then in May, the 2-year-old girl Gaull had been fostering was reunified with her parents. Four months later, in September, Gaull and her husband adopted a 4-year-old boy they had been fostering for a year. They had previously adopted a 7-year-old boy in 2019, but this adoption was different, as it happened over Zoom.
“But it was equally as special,” Gaull said. “Later that day we had a drive by congratulations party for him.”
Even while the coronavirus pandemic collides with the opioid epidemic in West Virginia, creating new challenges, some have found healing and hope.
Brittney Adkins of Julian, West Virginia, is among those who have made progress toward addiction recovery. Last fall, Adkins was addicted to heroin and ended up in jail for 30 days. It was there that she learned her four daughters were removed from her home and put into state custody.
“What my rock bottom, I think, was when my kids got taken,” Adkins said.
But soon after, Adkins learned about Family Treatment Court and was invited to participate. The court program started in Boone County last year to address the drug epidemic’s effect on families. Parents involved in child abuse and neglect cases are connected to addiction treatment and parenting classes, among other things. Adkins joined the program once she heard that she could see her children throughout the process.
“That’s all it took for me to say, ‘yes, I want to be in Family Treatment Court.’”
Adkins regained custody of her four daughters, ages 2 to 10, in August.
Along with seven others, Adkins graduated from Family Treatment Court in October.
Circuit Judge Will Thompson administers the program in Boone County and led efforts to bring Family Treatment Courts to West Virginia in 2019. He delivered remarks at the recent outdoor graduation ceremony in Julian, West Virginia.
“Brittney encountered some hiccups when she first came into the program; however, with increased treatment and support, you now have 232 clean days?” Judge Thompson looked at Brittany who confirmed the number.
“That’s incredible guys,” he remarked to the crowd.
Then the audience, which included Adkins’ four daughters, erupted in applause.