Area social workers are removing children from toxic home environments at unprecedented rates, and many of them will likely never be reunited with their families. Social workers take children away from parents or guardians for numerous causes, but heroin’s the No. 1 reason today forcing these separations.
The H Factor
A special three-day Register series looking at the impact of the heroin epidemic in Erie County
TODAY: Smack — Children displaced by drug use.
MONDAY: Big H — Users crowd jail
TUESDAY: Brown Sugar — Mental health and addiction.
“Heroin is an addictive substance, it’s part of the problem and we are seeing it in extreme measures” said Karen Balconi Ghezzi, executive director at Erie County Job and Family Services. “The social workers are getting frustrated because there is a feeling of ‘we won’t be able to ever reunify these kids with their parents because of the fact that the parents are not able to get the treatment they need or are not committed to it’”
When social workers step in, they place youngsters in settings such as foster and group homes or a relative’s residence, among other safe environments.
State law dictates parents or guardians can have up to two years to clean up in hopes of regaining custody.
If not, then these children are stuck in environments without their parents or guardians until they reach 18.
Balconi Ghezzi recently pleaded with county commissioners, urging them to direct additional help into her department because of a surge in separations largely thanks to heroin abuse.
“It’s safe to say the majority of these cases that are open are based on heroin use,” Balconi Ghezzi said.
She wanted commissioners to understand:
• The county’s social worker caseload has collectively more than doubled from a year ago, from 47 cases in December 2012 to 100 today.
• Of the 79 separate ongoing custody cases, 30 are directly tied to either heroin or other opiate use.
• There’s only 18 social workers in the department, the same number as a year ago.
• The average boarding cost today to house these 100 children hovers around $135,000 to $140,000 per month. A year ago, the figure totaled $75,000 per month.
“The boarding cost would be much higher were it not for the fact that we have been able to find relative and kinship placements for 46 percent of the children” Balconi Ghezzi said.
•The department has spent $6,700 on drug screenings during 2013 related to the removal of children from their homes.
Almost half the people tested positive for an illegal substance.
Based on the evidence presented, commissioners seemed receptive to Balconi Ghezzi’s request.
“The commissioners are very concerned about the heroin problem that seems to be a top concern in Erie County, along with all the other drugs that are on the street,” Erie County commissioner Bill Monaghan said. “We are looking at the possibility of giving the department more resources”
• 100: Number of children currently in the custody of Erie County Job and Family Services — a record. Heroin’s the top contributing factor.
• $140,000: Average monthly boarding cost today to house these children in approved homes.
• 47: Number of children in the department’s custody this time one year ago.
• $75,000: Average monthly boarding cost one year ago.
Source: Erie County Job and Family Services
Heroin is an illegal, highly addictive drug quickly becoming the most abused of the opiates.
Heroin’s an epidemic impacting not just those in Erie County but all across the U.S.
• In 2011, 4.2 million Americans 12 or older — 1.6 percent of the total population — used heroin at least once in their lives.
•About 23 percent of people who have used heroin have become dependent on it.
• Oftentimes, people abuse heroin after they get addicted to prescription medicine.
• As low as $5 per hit, heroin today is a relatively easy drug to find and obtain, Balconi Ghezzi said.
Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse