As opioid abuse in Mississippi continues to rise, so does the number of children in foster care. Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services says kids in state custody hovers around 6,000. About half the cases are drug-related. In our continuing coverage of the opioid epidemic, we take a look at the toll addiction is taking on children and the foster care system.
Angie Couch is watching her three foster children playing in the living room.
She and her husband have had the girls for about a year and a half. The Couches already have a 16-year old daughter and love having more kids in their Madison County home. The children are 2, 6, and 14 years old. This is their 5th foster care home in two years. It was an adjustment for them all, especially the 14-year old.
"There was a lot of distrust and just quietness, not talking, not connecting that kind of thing. We got them at the end of August and it was probably around November maybe she started to open up and began to trust and realize we're here for the long haul," said Couch.
The Couches are applying to adopt the girls. Angie Couch says the children's mother is addicted to heroin. The 2-year old was born addicted and detoxed in the hospital. She says the children's fathers are not in their lives. The girls share with Couch what they've seen their mother do like shoot-up drugs. They said their mother's boyfriend would become physically abusive after a couple of beers and they talked about trying to fend for themselves when their mother wasn't around.
"The middle child has the maturity of maybe a 20-year old in situations. But yet she's still six and mean. She's got this manipulation about her, and this knowledge, and this vocabulary, it's just shocking to me," said Couch.
Couch says the girls receive some therapy through foster care but not enough. Jess Dickinson is Commissioner of Mississippi's Department of Youth Protection Services. He says of the 6,000 children in state custody nearly half have parents who are addicted to drugs with a high percentage attributed to opioid abuse. Dickinson says the problem is growing with cases across all income brackets. He says they need an additional 1,700 foster parents. So, they have begun intensive weekend training classes to certify more. Foster parents receive $700 per child to pay for expenses.
"We have many shelters that we contract with to take our children because we don't have anywhere to put them. And sometimes, unfortunately, we'll pick up a child and there's nowhere for them to go and we'll put them in a hotel room and we'll put a caseworker to sit with them. Sometimes I've known of cases where we've had to sit with them in our office. I known of cases where they've been at the sheriff's department overnight because there wasn't anywhere to put them," said Dickinson.
Not all children are removed from the home because of drug addiction. Dickinson says they assess every situation to determine if the child is safe at home. They also check to see if there are other family members involved in the child's care. Child Protection Services has an intensive in-home program called "in-Circle" and they will work with the parents to help them with issues including addiction. If they determine a child isn't safe then they'll seek custody.
"I don't want to say that I've loved the drugs more than I love my child because I love him. I love him with all of my heart," said DeAngelo.
Veronica DeAngelo of Biloxi wants custody of her 8-month old son. She was in foster care, raised by her grandparents because her mother and father abused drugs. DeAngelo began using heroin when she was 14. She has given birth to three children, two of whom have been adopted. After a six-month stint in jail this year, the 24-year old is here at The Friendship Connection in Jackson, for residential treatment. DeAngelo says the baby is with his father who has been clean for 3 years.
"I'm doing this for me before anything else. But he's my very next priority, is my baby. I'm not going to let this one go," said DeAngelo.
Teneshia Smith is DeAngelo's counselor. Smith says opioid abuse is becoming more prominent in Mississippi. The state ranks 5th in the nation for pain medication prescriptions per capita. Finding affordable treatment is a challenge. Smith says some treatment facilities require payment up front. The Friendship Connection is a non-profit where clients can make payment arrangements for its 30-day program and transitional housing.
"For a lot of them, that's the only reason they feel that they can still live. That's the reason why they're trying to get sober because they have children and they want to break that cycle from the pain that they've been through. Because you have some who their parents have neglected them, abandoned them," said Smith.
Another problem for child protection services is keeping social workers. Commissioner Dickinson says they have 941 and looking to hire 146 more. He says it's becoming increasingly difficult to meet the needs of children caught up in the state's growing opioid epidemic. Dickinson says it will take more prevention services and community partnerships to help Mississippi families recover from the devastating impact of drug addiction.