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Inside West Virginia’s overwhelmed foster care system

A homemade sign says "Think drugs gets you high give God a try," on a front lawn in Big Stone Gap, Virginia. The town in Wise County has been hit hard by the opioid epidemic.

A homemade sign says "Think drugs gets you high give God a try," on a front lawn in Big Stone Gap, Virginia. The town in Wise County has been hit hard by the opioid epidemic. Julia Rendleman/Marketplace

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As many American parents struggle with opioid addiction, the number of children put into foster care in the U.S. is steadily increasing. 

In West Virginia, the foster care system has been hit particularly hard; roughly 6,700 children in the state are in foster care, an increase of almost 70% in six years. 

About 85% of the children in state custody have a parent who struggles with substance use disorder.   

“We recognize we have a child welfare crisis in the state. We have had to take children and keep them in a hotel or a motel somewhere close [to home],” said Bill Crouch, cabinet secretary of the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources

This means children sometimes stay in hotels, with social workers, or even inside state offices, on cots or blow-up mattresses.

Our podcast “The Uncertain Hour” spent a few episodes this season on the ground Wise County, Virginia, considered ground zero for the opioid crisis.

We also dug into the launch of OxyContin, and the way its claims of being less addictive were regulated, back in 2017.

The first thing social workers do when a child needs to be removed from their home is to try to find a relative, like a grandparent. But if no relative will take them, they turn to a foster care agency. 

According to Charlotte Barnett, a social worker with the Children’s Home Society in Charleston, on Friday afternoons she and her staff are often scrambling to find someone who will take a child, even just for the weekend. 

Every spare inch of the society’s building is filled with piles of donated baby clothes, carseats and toys. Barnett trains and oversees about thirty foster families in Kanawha County. When Child Protective Services call looking for a family, Barnett is the one who picks up the phone, day and night.

“And especially the late-night ones, I’m sure that worker has been working all day to try to find a home. It’s heartbreaking,” she said.

Many Friday afternoons are spent trying to find homes for children in need. On a recent Friday, Barnett received a call from a social worker looking for a home, immediately, for three siblings — every appropriate foster home the social worker knew of was full. 

Barnett and the other social workers called every foster family on their list. By late afternoon, a temporary home was found for the three kids. The next morning, the social workers embarked on a wider search, across the state, to find a foster home that would take all three siblings. Finally, they found one. 

This type of situation is common inside West Virginia’s foster care system.

“Every judge in the state of West Virginia will tell you that their dockets are completely filled with abuse and neglect cases,” said Kanawha County circuit court Judge Joanna Tabit. 

Tabit decides which children stay in foster care and which are reunited with their birth families The ultimate goal is to get the kids back with their parents, but that only happens in about half of all cases.

“The timeframes are just too tight,” Tabit said — parents are usually given a year to prove they can kick their addiction. 

“And you’re not gonna be able to get everyone into recovery, and to get everyone into where they need to be, because most people do relapse; that’s just part of the addiction process.”

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