A lot of people get hurt by just a single person suffering from drug addiction. The addict loses control of their lives and logic, unable to see the pain they cause to family, the anger that wells up in friends and the growing danger stoked on by day after day of buying baggies filled with death to feed a killer habit.
There is a group in this conversation that is hurt most of all by addiction, and must live with decisions out of their control for the rest of their days. They get tangled up in the chaos of people who are hindered by the haze over their brains caused by the use of methamphetamines, or opioids, even sometimes marijuana.
While their parents are getting high, more often than not the children are left forgotten. They are left to themselves to wonder why the adults care so much more about what they are doing behind closed doors or out in the open than those innocent eyes who only want love from their moms and dads.
A lot of the time, that’s when a state agency gets involved and separates children from their parents, hoping to ensure that youth don’t end up taking up the cycle of addiction their parents started down.
The state reported that 13,516 children were in the Department of Family and Children’s Services custody statewide as of December 2017, according figures from the department. Substance abuse ranks as the second highest reason statewide for children being removed from their parents custody and into the state’s care, totaling in at 2,951 in 2017 alone.
The numbers represent a reality that Juvenile Court Judge Mark Murphy faces in his courtroom all the time, when families are called before his bench in one of the front lines of combating drug addiction in Polk County.
His court continues to face a growing trend in the county of having to remove children from the custody of parents who are unable to properly care for their sons and daughters due mainly to methamphetamine addictions, adding to the growing number of youth who are in the Department of Family and Children’s Services custody throughout the state.
As of the end of the year in 2017, 88 more children had been removed from their parents care and into that of a family member or guardian willing to take them in, into a foster family’s care, or into state or privately run non-profit facilities like the Murphy Harpst Children’s Center here in Polk County.
Murphy said some 64 percent of those who went into foster care had parents with some kind of substance abuse problem.
“It’s primarily meth, from time to time we’ll see some prescription drug abuse (in parents,) and sometimes marijuana abuse,” Murphy said. “But it’s mainly still meth.”
These cases don’t start without someone first noticing a problem and deciding to report it. DFCS will get a call from a concerned citizen about child neglect or abuse against a parent, which will begin an investigation in the department into whether claims against a parent are merited.
The local office for last year had 633 child protective services cases assigned to case workers. And that workload was about double what a usual case worker in family and children’s services face nationally, or as much as four times some of those in the metro Atlanta area, Murphy said.
Children in the state’s care sometimes get placed in family homes, but Murphy said that two-thirds of those 88 who were placed into state custody are having to move outside of the area. One problem he said is the local shortage of foster homes, a problem that can be easily fixed if people are willing to open their homes to children who are in need of help.
Polk County is among the higher levels in the state of children who end up outside of the area in foster care, with at least 41 percent of youth in the state system being placed elsewhere in the state.
That means that parents who are trying to get back on the straight and narrow and beat addiction have less chance to see their children while still in foster care, Murphy said.
Reunification is the best outcome, he said. So the goal of the juvenile court isn’t to separate parents from their children permanently, but to develop a case plan with parents who are struggling to overcome their addictions in his court, and to get children and parents reunited and out of the foster care system.
A good portion of the time case plans work out, with Murphy reporting 62 percent of cases ending with parents being able to take custody of their children again.
Yet that doesn’t always work out. Out of 68 children in foster care by September of last year, Murphy said 13 of those were those who were coming back into the foster care system after their parents had successfully gotten their children back, but then relapsed back into bad behaviors. He added that 8.8 percent of those who have come back into the system are back in within 12 months of being reunited with their parents.
“That’s tough,” he said. “A lot of it is due to a parent’s relapse, and as we all know sometimes that is part of addiction recovery. Hopefully oversight and additional treatment will help those people.”
For those youth remaining, 13 percent of them end up being adopted, 10 percent end up with their grandparents as guardians and 15 percent of children end up exiting the foster care system without any resolution in their lives at all.
Children automatically are allowed to remain with their foster parents through the age of 21 and have to go through a process to remove themselves completely from the state’s system. Murphy said that they work with young adults transitioning into their new lives to ensure they are able to handle responsibilities usually taught by parents, and secondary education assistance, among other areas.
“As foster kids, you have a lot of limitations,” Murphy said. “It isn’t easy to get a car and a license to drive yourself around. There’s travel restrictions on foster kids, and they’ll feel like their friends at school have more freedom than they do.”
With those who are never reunited with their birth parents following separation by order of the court, there’s additional benefits like help from the state in planning for their future, but what can’t be erased are the memories they have of their parent’s drug use.
It is this part of each child’s story, slightly different for every case, that touches Murphy and makes him want to see a change. He recognizes that as much as the parents face challenges in trying to escape drug addiction, so do the sons and daughters of those who are tied up in the disease of no choice of their own.
“They’re born into some instability already in their family homes,” Murphy said.
Fixing the issue of instability problem is one of his top priorities, and his hopes are that to get families in a position where they can live together in harmony, the first item on the list to work on is tackling mental health issues as one of the steps for helping people overcome addiction.
“We’ve come to learn that a lot of parents who get hooked drugs are self-medicating for a mental illness, because either they can’t afford the medication they need or they don’t understand that they need help or don’t have access to a mental health treatment program,” he said.
Additionally, he said the DFCS staff here is chronically overburdened, and needs help to overcome the increasing number of cases in the Tallapoosa District.
“There’s less time for oversight and connecting parents and their children with services that will get them back home together,” Murphy said.
Hiring additional caseworkers will help with providing better services, but Murphy said much of the work has to be done by those who he faces on the other side of the bench, since many of the parents who end up in Juvenile Court aren’t facing any criminal charges.
“It’s a reckoning day for a lot of these parents,” he said.
He added that a focus in recent years on Accountability Courts are useful, and
Murphy said the first step to ensure that parents are getting treatment in order to see their children has been taken, with a grant application in to establish a Family Treatment Court, specifically under the jurisdiction of the Juvenile Court.
“It’ll be similar in many ways to the Drug Court we have, but without the threat of going to prison,” Murphy said. “The incentive for our parents will be that if you stay with the program, you’re going to get more frequent visitation as you meet these certain milestones faster as you engage in drug treatment and mental health treatment that you need to be a safe parent.”
It’s a first step the court is taking to try and curtail a major problem in Polk County. Education will be among another step, making sure the community understands the signs of drug abuse in a parent and the risks faced by a child.
However those who see a problem now and want to ensure a child is kept safe is encouraged to call the DFCS child abuse reporting hotline at 1-855-422-4453.
Additionally, Murphy is encouraging local residents to take part in the solution to reuniting families in Polk County by acting as a foster parent to a child in the system. There is a process and required classes, but those who really want to help can find out more information can visit fostergeorgia.com.