Experts: Opioid crisis puts strain on Virginia foster care system

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - The opioid crisis drains resources and tears families apart, but it is also hurting some of the most vulnerable members of society: children.

Experts say more kids are being put into foster care as a result of their parents' addictions.

News 3 investigated the problem and went into the home of one couple who took action to help.

The room smells like chocolate and there are hot brownies cooling off on the stove as Christine Ethridge and her partner waited for their adopted son to get home from school.

Almost four years ago they decided to start fostering children through the Up Center, a group that provides foster care and adoption services among other programs.

They currently have an adopted son and a foster child who is a toddler.

“Some children just come in here come for a weekend. We’ve had children coming two or three months, so you never know the duration of the stay,” said Ethridge.

She said it’s an emotional experience that she loves.

“There’s a lot of rewards being a foster parent for both you and the child,” said Ethridge.

About 16 months ago they took in a newborn baby boy who was addicted to opiates. Children addicted to drugs at birth is an ongoing problem throughout the country. Ethridge said it wasn’t easy for the little baby to withdraw from the drugs.

We are not identifying the child for privacy reasons, but Ethridge said it took him a while to withdraw. She said he was extremely sick, had tremors and exhibited seizure-like behavior.

“It’s very hard on an infant that’s five pounds to go through the exact same thing that a full-grown adult is going through, so they [medical staff] wean them off as best they can,” said Ethridge.

Ethridge and her partner underwent special training and praised the medical staff. Across the state, the number of children born addicted and kids being taken away from their homes because of addicted parents has increased.

Heather Wilson, the Intake and Recruitment Manager at the Up Center, said their organization has felt the effects of this issue.

“About five years ago we kept hearing, 'The opioid epidemic is coming, it’s coming.' Over the last three years we’ve seen it; we’ve seen an increase of children that come in. They are coming in right from the hospital,” said Wilson.

According to the Virginia Department of Social Services, in 2010 19 percent of the kids entering the foster care system were there because their parents abused drugs. The numbers have gradually increased to 30 percent by 2017.

According to the state, as of January 1, 2017, there were 5,228 children receiving foster care services in Virginia and of these, 2,702 were male and 2,526 were female. Thirteen- to 18-year-olds make up 39.3 percent of these children, experts stated.

The state said it doesn’t track the kinds of drugs the parents are accused of doing. It said there were 308 infants born addicted to a substance in the state of Virginia in 2000 compared to 1,543 in 2017.

“There’s an extraordinary need for more foster parents across the country. There are more children being placed in the foster care system across the nation, mainly due to the opiate crisis and there are not enough foster parents,” said Dr. John DeGarmo, a foster care expert.

Dr. DeGarmo said there are fewer foster parents and caseworkers are overworked, overwhelmed and under-resourced.

He said the children are the ones impacted.

“There’s a misconception that these are bad kids. These are children that have suffered tremendous abuse, suffer from anxiety, have been neglected or even abandoned. These are children who are victims of horrible circumstances, and the vast majority of these children just want somebody to care about them enough,” said Dr. DeGarmo.

“We are looking for single foster parents, two-parent households, LGBTQ-sensitive homes, families that stay home,” said Wilson. “The need is everywhere because every child is unique that comes into foster care system.”

That need in our community is what caused Ethridge and her partner to take action and become foster parents.

“We want him to have the best foot forward in life. We want him to have the best step up to succeed,” said Ethridge. “We’re truly in love with this child.”

Click here for more information about the Up Center.

Click here for more information on Social Services and to learn how to become a foster parent.