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'Drug culture' blamed for spike in foster care numbers

Robert Houk • Jan 12, 2020 at 8:00 AM

Substance abuse is taking a toll on families in Tennessee, resulting in a growing number of children being placed in foster care.

“It’s not just opioids, it’s literally a drug culture problem,” state Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, said last week. “It effects the entire family.”

Crowe, chairman of the state Senate’s Health and Welfare Committee, said chronic drug abuse has resulted in the children of addicts spending more time in foster care.

“It’s taking longer for them to get clean — to reprogram their brains,”  Crowe said of substance abusers. “That often means their children are staying longer in the custody of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services.”

By The Numbers

There are currently more than 8,310 children in state DCS care, which department officials say is a significant increase in recent years. Not all of those children are from homes with an addicted parent. Some are placed in state care because of other abuse or neglect.

Recent statewide figures, however, show 2,451 children were placed in foster care in 2019 as a direct result of a family member’s substance abuse. That was an increase of 103 children from the previous year.

Tennessee is not alone in seeing its foster care numbers grow as a result of substance abuse.

Stateline, a publication of the Pew Charitable Trusts, recently reported babies and toddlers are entering the foster care system at a higher rate, which some experts blame on the methamphetamine and opioid epidemics.

West Virginia has the greatest number of children entering foster care, along with the highest drug overdose rates in the United States.

Word Of Mouth

Officials with child services in Tennessee say the state currently has 5,300 foster homes. Roughly half are DCS homes, while the rest are managed by private contractors. The state’s goal is a 10% increase to its foster care capability annually, based on the number of foster homes that close each year.

“It seems to be working,” Crowe said. “The best recruiters are foster parents themselves.”

Camille Legins, DCS’s executive director of network development and child programs, said her department is exceeding its goal for foster homes by 20%. She said foster parents are spreading their own “positive experiences in the program by word of mouth.”

Tennesseans can sign up to become foster parents by calling 877-327-5437.

Crowe said DCS officials are asking for a cost-of-living increase for foster parents to be included in Gov. Bill Lee’s new state budget. The department is also asking for more money to expand its specialized drug teams and to increase the number foster care managers help reduce a growing caseload.

Seeing A Difference

State officials say specialized drug intervention teams are key to helping DCS address substance abuse-related foster cases.

Carla Aaron, DCS’s executive director of the office of child safety, said those teams help families “address complex intervention issues” that come with a family member who has a substance abuse problem.

Legins said families often need the DCS to help them by “stepping in and exercising some rules and perimeters” for recovering addicts with children to follow. The state is also pushing programs to help relatives of a substance abuser become better caregivers to their family member’s children.

One program is the “Safe Baby Court.” Aaron said this voluntary program allows a judge to work with the DCS to help substance abusers, who have children under the age of 3, find the resources they need for recovery. 

This approach appears to be working in Johnson County, which was one of the first counties in Tennessee to implement a Safe Baby Court. Johnson County saw its number of foster cases resulting from substance abuse drop from 16 in 2018 to seven in 2019.

Other area counties have reported a downturn in drug-related foster care cases reported in 2019. There were 27 cases in Washington County last year, which was a decline from the 45 reported in 2018. The same was true for Carter County, which saw its numbers drop from 43 in 2018 to 27 in 2019.

Meanwhile, Unicoi County saw its number of drug-related child foster cases increase to seven in 2019, up three from the previous year.

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