Children of the Opioid Epidemic Are Flooding Foster Homes. America Is Turning a Blind Eye.
By JULIA LURIE
Jul/Aug 2017 Issue
Long before the social workers showed up in his living room this March, Matt McLaughlin, a 16-year-old with diabetes, had taken to a wearying evening routine: trying to scrounge up enough spare change for food while his mom, Kelly, went to a neighbor’s house to use heroin. On a good night, the bookish high school junior would walk through his neighborhood in Andover, Ohio, a Rust Belt town surrounded by fields and trailer parks, to pick up frozen pizza from the Family Dollar. On a bad night, he’d play video games to distract himself from his grumbling stomach and dipping blood sugar, and wait for Kelly to return with glazed eyes.
It wasn’t always this way. When Matt was little, Kelly was a Head Start caseworker who patiently taught parents how to manage their autistic children. She loved hosting potlucks with friends and playing Barbie with Matt’s sister, Brianna. There was always music: Tchaikovsky when Kelly was at the piano, or Jimmy Buffett blasting through the speakers while she cooked. “Growing up, we were the house that everyone wanted to come to,” remembered Brianna, now 20. “I loved every minute of it.”
Then Kelly had neck surgery and got addicted to OxyContin. By 2015, she was spending her days napping, disappearing for hours at a time, or going to her neighbor’s house, where she would exchange cash for packets of heroin. She started yelling at the kids, letting the fridge go empty and the house lapse into a den of cigarette butts and dirty dishes. “It’s like her personality did a 180,” Brianna said. “I felt like I lost my mom to this pit that I couldn’t pull her out of.”
On a sunny Tuesday in March, I accompanied Kerri Mongenel and Tim Kiefaber, two caseworkers from Ashtabula County Children Services, as they drove through the cornfields to Kelly’s house, a duplex with peeling paint and blankets covering the windows. A few days earlier, an anonymous tipster had called the police and urged them to check on the family. A rail-thin Kelly, dressed in pajamas, answered the door and invited us in. Then she sat down at the kitchen table, put her head in her hands, and began to weep.
She’d been to detox several times over the years, she explained, trying to rid herself of what felt like a demon that had taken over her brain. Last year, she managed to stay clean for 63 days, until a friend came over “and laid out a line—and that was all it took.” Now Kelly could rattle off the names of five heroin dealers within a five-mile radius. “I know I need help,” she said through tears. “I just haven’t wanted to admit to Matt that I’d have to go away again.”
By the end of the day, Matt and Kelly had haphazardly packed their bags. Kelly would go to detox yet again. Matt headed to an aunt’s house. He was lucky to have relatives nearby: The spiraling opioid epidemic has disrupted so many families that all the foster homes in Ashtabula County are full.
The scourge of addiction to painkillers, heroin, and fentanyl sweeping the country has produced a flood of bewildered children who, having lost their parents to drug use or overdose, are now living with foster families or relatives. In Ashtabula County, in Ohio’s northeast corner, the number of children in court custody quadrupled from 69 in 2014 to 279 last year. “I can’t remember the last time I removed a kid and it didn’t have to do with drugs,” says Mongenel, a quick-witted redhead. Her clients range from preschoolers who know to call 911 when a parent overdoses to steely teenagers who cook and clean while Mom and Dad spend all day in the bathroom. Often, the kids marvel at how quickly everything changed—how a loving mom could transform, as one teenager put it, into a “zombie.”
The pattern mirrors a national trend: Largely because of the opioid epidemic, there were 30,000 more children in foster care in 2015 than there were in 2012—an 8 percent increase. In 14 states, from New Hampshire to North Dakota, the number of foster kids rose by more than a quarter between 2011 and 2015, according to dataamassed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. In Texas, Florida, Oregon, and elsewhere, kids have been forced to sleep in state buildings because there were no foster homes available, says advocacy group Children’s Rights. Federal child welfare money has been dwindling for years, leaving state and local funding to fill in the gaps. But Ashtabula County is one of the poorest counties in Ohio, and despite a recent boost in funding, the state contributes the lowest share toward children’s services of any state in the country.