Editor’s note: The following is the first of a three-part series, leading into sustained coverage throughout the year, by The Times-Gazette and the AIM Media Network delving into the impact the opioid epidemic has had on Highland County, across Ohio and the rest of the country.
On Tuesday afternoon, 103 Highland County children were in the custody of Highland County Children Services.
More than half were there because their parents abused drugs at home.
Katie Adams, director of Highland County Job and Family Services, said that while child removals have declined after an all-time high in 2014, JFS drug test numbers show no downward trends in substance abuse here.
And, Adams said, although drug tests coming back positive for opioids decreased from 2016 to 2017, methamphetamine made a dramatic comeback in the same time frame.
In 2016, 132 parents tested positive for opiates, while only 72 tested positive for meth. Last year, only 70 tested positive for opiates, while 116 tested positive for meth.
In an attempt to lower placement costs when she assumed the director role in 2015, Adams focused the agency’s resources on placing children with family members rather than with foster families. While the initiative slashed placement costs nearly in half, it did little to help weary caseworkers.
“Unfortunately, the caseworkers have become kind of immune to the drug problem,” Adams said. “(They) are getting burnt out, they’re frustrated, they’re not seeing the successes we used to see. Now, successes are finding a family member to step up and take care of the child.”
No caseworkers have walked out on the job, Adams said, but she added, “When you have to tell a child that their parent has overdosed, that takes a toll on you.”
And while caseworkers continue to burn out, the children of those addicted continue to pay the price.
In 2016, seven babies were born in Highland County showing signs of chemical dependence, according to records kept by Adams. The majority of them were dependent on opioids, Adams said.
Last year, only one baby was born here addicted to drugs. Tests came back positive for methamphetamine, said Adams.
Highland County Prosecuting Attorney Anneka Collins said it was the idea of an infant fighting for life due to the mother’s drug abuse that prompted her to prosecute mothers who used drugs while pregnant.
Prior to 2014, Collins sought indictments on more than a dozen women who used drugs during pregnancy and caused their babies to be born addicted.
“If you have ever seen a child born addicted to heroin, you wouldn’t have to ask why,” she said. “It’s horrible. It’s the worst thing in the world.”
Collins charged each one with corrupting another with drugs, a second-degree felony, and secured convictions in every case.
But in 2014, the Fourth District Court of Appeals ruled that the prosecutions were unconstitutional.
“They say, basically, a woman has the right to do with her body as she pleases, even when she’s pregnant,” Collins said.
Collins said when anyone is addicted to drugs, “nothing else matters to them,” even their children — born or unborn.
“It’s not because they don’t want it to matter,” Collins said, “but their addiction is above everything, including their kids. We’ve had cases where the addicted parent is using all the money to buy their drugs or using their food stamps to buy drugs, and the kids suffer… when mom or dad go to jail, the kids are suffering.”
Collins said when she began working at the prosecutor’s office nearly 12 years ago, the felony caseload required two full-time prosecutors, and she handled juvenile court cases.
While the felony caseload has gone down in recent years, Childrens Services cases have “grown exponentially,” she said.
“With my own kids, I talk about it to them all the time, because it’s something that’s there and it’s available and easy to get,” she said. “We as a society have got to get in there and be better role models for our kids.”
Highland County Health Commissioner Jared Warner said the health department has also seen the effects of addiction on local families, albeit on a smaller scale.
“We constantly have foster parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles bringing in kids for their immunizations,” he said. “It’s a normal thing to have families torn apart by addiction, and we see that on our end just with the families we deal with.”
Reach David Wright at 937-402-2570, or on Twitter @DavidWrighter.