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Fueled by opioid epidemic, foster care numbers soar in Ohio

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The opioid epidemic is putting more and more children into Ohio's foster care system, and costs to the system will increase by more than two-thirds in 2018 

A thousand more Ohio children spent the holidays in foster care this season compared to last year, thanks to the opioid epidemic sweeping the state.

That somber news comes from a report released last month by the Public Children Services Association of Ohio, a statewide membership organization for county children services agencies. If the rate at which children entering the foster care system continues, that number could double to 2,000 by next year, according to the organization.

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“The number of children in need of county services as a result of the opiate epidemic is staggering,” said Suzanne Dulaney, executive director of the County Commissioners’ Association of Ohio.

“While we cannot give the children in the care of county government the immediate Christmas present they deserve — healthy and intact families — we can and must respond as a state and as local communities to address their needs,” she said. “More must be done to bring resources to the table for these children.”

“I would also add that we need to keep in mind the strain this crisis has placed on our children services staff and other county first responders,” she said. “The toll on them has been staggering as well.”

The cost of placing children in foster care in Ohio will surge by 67 percent to more than half a billion dollars a year, if entry rates continue at the current pace. Counties shoulder more than half the cost of paying for child protection in Ohio. Foster care placement costs alone have risen by an estimated $45 million since last year.

“There are very few in Franklin County who have not been affected in some way by the opiate epidemic ravaging communities across the nation, and the effects on children in particular are devastating,” said Commissioner John O’Grady.

“Franklin County and the city of Columbus launched an action plan in 2017 to double down on efforts to address this public health crisis from all angles, including the stress it is placing on our foster care system,” he said. “To that end, strong local-state-federal partnerships will continue to be critical to our success.”

Ohio led the nation from 2002 to 2010 in reducing the number of children in out-of-home care by 42 percent. “But the Great Recession followed by the opioid crisis led to more children being drawn into the system, and these kids are more complex, their trauma more challenging, and their placement costs dramatically higher than Ohio’s child protection agencies have ever witnessed,” said Angela Sausser, executive director of the Public Children Services Association of Ohio.

The numbers tell the story: In July 2013, 12,654 children were in agency custody. Four years later, the number climbed to 15,145. This fall, the number rose to 15,500. If the rate continues, 20,000 children may be in Ohio foster care by 2020.

“Many of these kids watch their parents overdose or die,” Sausser said. “They are missing milestones with their families such as birthday parties and ringing in the new year, and many are staying in care longer due to their parents’ relapsing.”

“Ohio needs a long-term solution to this crisis — and leadership to get us there before agency budgets collapse and our workforce jumps ship,” Sausser said. “We already have a lack of available foster homes in Ohio. With the projected increases, we will have children sleeping in county agency lobbies with no available foster family to take them in.” 

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