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System Overload

Foster Care System Struggles

Story by Kelly Hooper

Videos by Arianna Dunham, Anna Saab and Patrick Orsagos

When Tina Williams was hired as a licensed social worker for the state’s Child Protective Services in 2001, she was juggling a caseload of about 20 displaced children. By 2008, as the opioid epidemic swept the state and more children were left without parents, she said her caseload soared into the 50s, and she was recruiting friends and family members to become foster parents.

“Within like five years, everything was drug, drug, drug,” said Williams, who retired in 2016 and now works at a McDowell County emergency shelter with 10 beds. “...We’ve got these babies out there and they need help and there’s nobody to help them. We don’t have the facilities to help them. We don’t have the facilities to help their parents.”

The drug crisis in West Virginia has overwhelmed caseworkers and judges charged with keeping children safe.  More than 7,000 children were in foster care in West Virginia in May, up from about 4,000 five years ago, according to state data. Some caseworkers report staying overnight with children in hotels and state offices.

In March 2018, Department of Health and Human Resources  added 48 caseworker positions in 29 counties, but caseloads in some places still top the recommended target of 15 children.

Emilee Hughes, a case manager for a private agency that provides at-home services to foster children, said her job became so exhausting that she decided to cut back her client load last year from about eight families to two.

Hughes, who has been with the agency Hand in Hand in Home Services for about two years, said separating children from their parents during visitations was wrenching. Once, she said, a 5-year-old boy tried to jump out of her Toyota as they were getting ready to drive away from a visit with his mother. 

“It’s just heartbreaking, because they scream the whole entire way home and I know why – because they want their mom or their parent, but we can’t do it,” she said.

Hunter Mullens, a lawyer in Barbour County, population 16,500, said child abuse and neglect cases in the court system “have just skyrocketed.” 

Mullens, a former assistant prosecutor in Barbour and Taylor counties, said he believes about 90 percent of cases are related to drugs.

“That’s just unbelievable,” Mullens said. “It’s affecting children and their families, and something has to be done about that.” 

William Thompson, a judge in the circuit courts of Boone and Lincoln counties, said he worries most about the rising popularity of methamphetamine. Fentanyl use has also been on the rise in West Virginia. From 2015 to 2017, deaths from the drug – which is 50 times stronger than heroin – were up 122 percent from what they were between 2005 and 2014, according to a recent study by West Virginia University researchers.

Thompson said that nearly all of his child abuse and neglect cases are related to substance abuse, and he expects the numbers to continue to rise.

“I think we as a county, we as a state, we as a country are doing a better job as far as controlling opioids, but we haven't fixed the underlying addiction problem,” Thompson said.

Williams, the former CPS caseworker, eventually traded in 60-hour work weeks for a more regular schedule at the emergency shelter in McDowell County. Still, she said the emotional strain of the job can be tough to handle. 

On a recent afternoon, Williams took a phone call at her desk to discuss the placement of a boy at the shelter who was about to turn 18. She sat in front of signs that read, “Love Always & Forever” and “Hope for the future,” next to a Mickey Mouse coloring page and a shelf decorated with fake autumn leaves and a scarecrow. 

Over the phone, Williams spoke to a social worker about the clothes the boy would soon need when he left the shelter. 

“I’m angry at the devastation that the [drug] usage has left,” she said. “To me, the pharmaceutical companies and the representatives did the same thing to our county as the coal robber barons: They came, they took the money, they left the county destitute.”

Douglas Soule contributed to this story.