Duval County child welfare providers are keeping a watchful eye on the opioid epidemic that’s killing people in Northeast Florida. The majority of children placed in foster care have parents who are struggling with substance abuse.
Jewel Jefferson was at home with her foster children Wednesday. Stepping into her Jacksonville home is like stepping into a children’s oasis. The very first room isn’t one of those fancy sitting rooms no one’s allowed to touch. Instead, it’s a colorful playroom filled with shelves of books, VHS tapes and boxes of toys.
She’s taking care of four right now. She listed off their ages: “eight months, 1-year-old, 2-year-old and 3-year old.”`
Jefferson has three adult biological children. After the last turned 18, she became a foster mom. Over the last decade she’s fostered at least 20 children and all but one came from parents dealing with substance abuse, she said.
That’s not surprising to Family Support Services President Robert Miller because of the 800 plus children removed from their homes in Nassau and Duval counties last year, “78 percent of those removal episodes either had drug or substance abuse as their primary or secondary reason for the removal,” he said.
Miller’s organization is a state contractor, providing foster care, adoption services and diversion programs for parents to keep the kids in their homes, if possible.
He says the number of children removed due to substance abuse has been steadily increasing over the years, but he doesn’t track which substances are to blame.
“We’re not able to dig down and see what part of the opioid epidemic we’re seeing, but we are making an effort,” he said.
Miller has been participating in city meetings and committees about the opioid epidemic.
“As the needs of the community change, then we need to continually modify our programs to meet those needs,” Miller said.
And his organization might need to adapt its diversion services — which include mental health counseling, parenting classes and substance abuse treatment — to focus more on heroin.
He said the goal is to keep children in their homes, which was possible last year for about 1,000 kids whose parents completed prevention programs.
If those kids had been removed from their homes, there might not have been enough foster parents, he said.
The opioid problem is getting a lot of attention from local officials. At a recent Jacksonville town hall, Fire Department Lieutenant Mark Rowley said rescuers are spending $15,000 a month to treat overdose victims with the drug Narcan.
“Today I promise you, as you sit here right now, we are trying to save the life of an overdose victim,” Rowley said. “On average once every two hours, our firefighters are out there administering Narcan.”
Miller said statistics on who’s getting Narcan show the primary overdosers are white men ages 30 to 49. But the rate of caucasian families requiring support services has not increased.
“If the males are doing it, then that usually means that the children and the wife are still an intact unit,” Miller said. “It’s probably putting stress on the family, but so far we haven’t seen the direct impact.”
Still, it’s something he’s closely monitoring, because kids removed from addicted parents typically take a long time to reunify with them.
“Maybe the parents relapse. Maybe we try a reunification with them and the stress of having the children back in the home causes them to relapse,” Miller said. “The whole set of issue around substance abuse delays the system and results in longer stays for children.”
Jefferson, who has been a foster for nearly 10 years, said she’s seen that first hand. She’s had kids from a couple months, to almost two years, and she said the hardest part is not knowing if their parents are ready or if they’re are going to relapse.
“I encourage them, ‘OK, let’s pray for your mom.’ Some of them, they really, really pray for their parents,” she said. “I know these children love their parents and they want to go back.”
Miller said the organization is always looking for more foster parents like the Jeffersons.
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Reporter Lindsey Kilbride can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, 904-358-6359 or on Twitter at @lindskilbride.