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This story about the opioid crisis and foster care was produced as part of a series, “Twice Abandoned: How schools and child-welfare systems fail kids in foster care,” reported by HuffPost and , a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.
Lafayette, Ind. ― There were about three agonizing weeks between the moment Jodie Hicks called child protective services on her son and the moment her granddaughter, Tessa, was taken out of his care.
She didn’t want to make the call. What kind of mother calls the authorities on her son?
And worse, what if her call made Tessa’s situation more difficult? She knew her son would be furious when he found out about it. If authorities didn’t find anything wrong at his home and he cut off contact, Tessa would be left to languish.
But she had seen what went on in her drug using son’s house and felt she had no other options. Her granddaughter, 4, was living in a filthy place where drug users came and went. She spent most of her time alone. She wasn’t properly being cared for.
Hicks, who works for an organization providing services for homeless families, had always kept a watchful eye on Tessa, providing stability and support amid the child’s chaotic home life. Those weeks ― during which, Hicks said, her son quickly figured out she had made the call and inundated her with angry messages ― she had no sense of what Tessa could be facing.
“There’s this little being there, who has no control over her life and is being subjected to things she has no say over,” Hicks said of her granddaughter. “Anything can happen during that time.”
Tessa ― now 7 and in the first grade ― is part of a generation of children who are having unprecedented contact with child welfare system as the opioid crisis continues to ravage the lives of the adults around them. In Indiana, where Tessa lives, the situation is especially dire.
Indiana’s foster care intake has more than doubled since 2001, the sharpest increase in the nation. And while the nationwide rate of foster care entrances is not as high as it was at its peak in 2005, many states have seen drastic increases in recent years. Between 2012 and 2016, the number of kids in foster care around the country rose by 10 percent. More of these kids were being removed from their home due to parental drug use, according to data from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System.
Physicians and counselors struggle with how to treat opioid-addicted pregnant women and their children, who are born into withdrawal. But for the kids who are already here, it is their grandparents, foster parents, teachers and school administrators who are on the front lines of this crisis.
The statistics for foster youth are bleak: Just 58 percent of youth involved with the foster care system have graduated from high school by age 19, compared to 87 percent of the general population. And while new requirements in the 2015 federal law governing education, the Every Student Succeeds Act, are designed to help this population, a Hechinger Report/HuffPost survey has found that many states are not living up to the law’s promise.
Hicks wasn’t about to allow Tessa into the care of strangers. So when Tessa’s parents tested positive for drugs and authorities took Tessa from their home, she went to live with Hicks ― a process known as kinship care.
Hicks, 54, and her husband, Kevin O’Brien, Tessa’s 65-year-old step-grandfather, suddenly had a young child living under their roof.
Both had already raised children to adulthood. Now, instead of spending their nights with friends and going out to restaurants, they were shuttling their energetic granddaughter between dance lessons, voice lessons, therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy and play dates.
The transition was somewhat jarring, isolating Hicks and O’Brien from their friends and their former lives ― until they realized how many grandparents and great-grandparents were in the exact same position.
“That’s the thing that shocked me more than anything,” said O’Brien, who is now retired after decades working at Eli Lilly and Company, the pharmaceutical company. “The number of people around town raising grandkids or helping raise their great-grandkids, it’s crazy. In some ways, you probably hope you’re the only one.”
The day child protective services came to get Tessa from her parents’ house, authorities gave her around 10 minutes to get her stuff and say goodbye. It was chaos.
But three years later, her daily life is characterized by routine.
On a Monday evening in August, Tessa climbed up O’Brien’s legs as if he was a tree. She wore glasses with pink rims and a T-shirt that read, “Ain’t a woman alive that can take my grandma’s place,” referencing a Tupac Shakur song. The family ate at Tessa’s favorite pizza spot, and she munched slices of cheese pizza while singing out loud to “Believer” by Imagine Dragons.
She appeared a typical 7-year-old in every way, unless you listened closely.
Tessa has a speech and language disorder, making her difficult to understand at times. It’s an issue that was apparent early and should have been addressed when she was a toddler.
But Tessa’s parents never followed up in getting her speech therapy, even after much prodding from Hicks, Hicks said. Now, Tessa’s playing catch up. She spends two hours a week with a speech therapist, both in school and after.
She’s about a year behind academically, too. Tessa has dyslexia, dysgraphia and some sensory processing issues that make her sensitive to loud noises and crowds. She spends part of the school day in a resource room working on her reading skills.
Hicks doesn’t know how much of this could have been prevented.
When Tessa was living with her parents, she spent many days alone, sometimes locked in her bedroom. She fetched her own food from the refrigerator, even as a toddler, Hicks said. She ate lots of sugar and junk food, and when she started living with Hicks and O’Brien, she was underweight.
She was almost like a “little feral animal,” Hicks said of when Tessa first came to live with them.
And then there’s all the trauma, which she still may not have processed.
On a day-to-day basis, Tessa is a happy, friendly girl who likes school and going to car shows with O’Brien ― whom she calls by his first name, Kevin.
But Hicks knows that her granddaughter ― a girl she said is impossible not to love, a girl who is always dancing and is so obsessed with the movie “Frozen” that she has memorized “Let It Go” in multiple languages ― has experienced unimaginable pain.
Tessa recently told her therapist that an adult touched her in bad ways as a toddler. Hicks doesn’t know who the perpetrator was ― it was not one of her parents ― but assumes it was one in a rotating cast of drug users passing through Tessa’s life.
Going to live with her grandparents, unfortunately, wasn’t a magic bullet for Tessa’s pain. Her parents had a difficult time maintaining their visitation schedule. Tessa’s mom and dad were required to arrive together, but sometimes one was late and the visit would be canceled. Each no-show was another heartbreak, until eventually, Tessa became resigned to the fact that she couldn’t count on her parents, O’Brien said.
“It caused a lot of emotional trauma,” O’Brien said. “When she would come home, she would be problematic and not do anything she’s supposed to do.”
After a while, Tessa stopped trusting her parents would show up. The visiting sessions became inconsistent.
Tessa now has a stable relationship with her father, Justin, though she hasn’t had contact with her mother in about a year. She sees her dad often, under the supervision of her grandmother. He loves his daughter dearly and treasures hearing her stories about school and adventures with friends.
Justin is now clean and no longer upset with his mother. Instead, he’s appreciative of the life she and her husband have given Tessa. She regularly goes out to dinner. Hicks and O’Brien have taken her on vacation to Florida. These are things Justin says he’d never be able to provide.
Justin no longer sees Tessa’s mother or his friends from that time. When he looks around, he sees many people in his situation ― or worse.
“There’s no such thing as a functioning heroin addict,” he said. “A lot of the people I know just couldn’t ― didn’t want to give it up for their kids. So they lost ’em.”
Hicks and O’Brien worked to make sure Tessa could attend a local public school that would fit her needs. Her grandparents are vigilant about her school work. They have permanent custody rights, so she no longer has to interact with caseworkers from child protective services.
She attends a local elementary school, where Matt Rhoda is the principal. In the small school, Tessa’s situation isn’t so unusual. Rhoda says he knows of at least six grandparents raising grandchildren in the school ― a number that seems to be climbing.
Still, “[Tessa] seems to be thriving,” he said.
She might be behind, but if she continues on this track, she could catch up.
Back To School Blues
Around the country, and in Indiana especially, there’s been an influx of students just like Tessa who are still in the foster care system. And in many ways, schools haven’t yet figured out how to educate them.
It is the job of people like Donna Walker to help schools figure it out.
Walker works as an educational liaison with Child Advocates, a group in Indianapolis that provides legal representation for children who have suffered abuse or neglect. Walker’s job is to help advocate for the educational needs of foster care kids who are struggling most in schools. Guardians who represent the children in court refer their most intense cases to the educational liaisons.
When the program started in 2011, Donna and another employee worked as educational liaisons on a consultant basis and split around 140 cases between them. By 2017, the program had five full-time employees, a part-time employee, and over 1,080 cases.
“We have overwhelmed systems serving overwhelmed families with traumatized children,” said Walker, who spent 35 years working as a teacher and administrator for public schools, and has seen schools become much more responsive to trauma over time.
On a given day, Walker typically visits between three and five schools in the area. She knows them all well. She has students who have moved about 20 times over the course of only a few years ― bouncing between foster parents and relatives ― but she tries her best to limit school changes.
The odds of education success can be long for these students: Less than 3 percent of kids who are involved with foster care earn a college degree by the age of 25.
Still, Walker said, “for a lot of them, school is the anchor. They’ve been in multiple foster homes. It’s their safe place.”
On a Thursday afternoon in May, Walker met with a local teacher about an elementary school child who could barely make it through the school day.
This child didn’t live with his mom or dad, or even his grandma or grandpa. He lived with his great-grandpa. His parents and grandparents were either drug users, in and out of jail, or simply unable to care for him. And while living with his great-grandpa seems preferable to living with a foster family, the situation is far from ideal.
With little supervision, the child often stays up late at night watching television. His great-grandpa works long hours and is at work way before the school bus comes. On some days, there’s no one to make sure the child gets to school. He complains of constant stomachaches and tells his great-grandpa he fears child protective services will take him away and put him in a foster home.
When he does go to school, he has a hard time staying awake. In class, after he greets classmates and gets breakfast, he promptly lays his head on his desk and goes to sleep. His teacher can’t seem to make him stay awake.
Getting any child to sit down, focus and practice spelling and math equations can be difficult, even in the best of situations. But for a child who doesn’t have someone tucking him into bed at night or putting him on the bus in the morning and who is living in constant fear that he will be taken away from his guardian, it is near impossible.
The adults also suspect this child has serious medical issues. But if he does, will he receive the proper care?
Walker and his teacher brainstormed strategies to keep him engaged.
The problem is, he’s not even the neediest kid in the classroom, the teacher said.
Traumatized Students And Overworked Teachers
On a day-to-day basis, Walker meets with teachers and school leaders who are trying their best to reach traumatized students.
Sometimes their efforts fall short, no matter how hard they work. But sometimes they have tremendous success.
That May morning, Walker also met with a 15-year-old client of hers who had only just started to attend school. For years, he had been kept in his home, not allowed to leave, until child protective services found him.
Starting over at school years behind his grade level and in classes with younger children could have been a mountain of frustration for the teen. But he is thriving, soaking up new information at a surprising rate.
“We did the right thing here. Not one I question. Some I do. But this one not,” said Walker in a meeting with his teachers in May.
That’s why she doesn’t lose hope. She knows what’s possible with the right combination of support and school culture.
But some schools are still struggling to meet the needs of these kids – often allowing them to slip through the cracks as they bounce between schools and families.
One of the biggest barriers to these students’ success is their transience. Studies show that foster youth lose four to six months of learning every time they change schools. In the rush to make sure students find a suitable home placement, educational stability is sometimes put on the back burner.
The Every Student Succeeds Act is designed to tackle this. For the first time, the 2015 education law requires states to report graduation rates for foster youth. It also includes a provision designed to help students stay in the same school even if they move homes. This provision calls on states to work with schools and child welfare agencies to provide school transportation for these students even if they are no longer living nearby.
But a Hechinger/HuffPost survey of 44 state education agencies showed that states are struggling to meet the new standards.
The law sets a December deadline for states to comply with its provision on reporting graduation rates. But more than one-quarter of states surveyed reported that graduation rates for foster youth wouldn’t be available until next year at the earliest, and many other states had just begun to collect the data. In Indiana, the state education agency expects to publish that information for the first time by Dec. 31.
Only four states could identify the rate at which foster youth graduate from high school — and those results were grim. In Georgia, just 11 percent of foster youth completed high school within four years; in Colorado, 23.6 percent did, and in California, 51.1 percent did. Nebraska’s graduation rate for 2015-16, the most recent year available, was 51.4 percent.
And while the new law has prompted states to assign staff members to coordinate between child welfare and education agencies and take other steps to help foster youth in school, evidence of improvement is scant so far.
Only three states could report concrete evidence that they’d been able to keep youth from cycling through schools as they moved between foster homes, a big barrier to these students’ educational success and a focus of the law. The vast majority of states said they had no plans to track that information or didn’t have it available.
In Indiana ― where children are put in foster care at twice the national rate ― the issues facing foster care youth are particularly severe.
In December 2017, the longtime director of the state’s Department of Child Services resigned, writing in a scathing letter that without changes to the department, “I fear lives will be lost and families ruined.” The leader, Mary Beth Bonaventura, said she was responding to budget cuts, leadership changes and complacency over outmoded technology.
In response, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb (R) ordered an independent review of the Department of Child Services that found the agency had a number of strengths ― including a high rate of kids placed in the care of relatives as opposed to outside families ― but also faced a number of challenges. A Department of Child Services report from September revealed that in 2016, 59 Indiana kids had died as a result of abuse or neglect, down from 77 the previous year.
Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition For Child Protection Reform, disputes the idea that budget cuts are the cause of Indiana’s woes, noting that Indiana actually spends generously on child welfare. He thinks there are deeper reasons behind the high rate of family separations in Indiana.
There’s an underlying hostility toward drug-users in the state, Wexler said, even if the drug is comparatively benign, like marijuana. The system is quick to separate families whether or not there is evidence of child endangerment.
“The presumption is immediate: Substance abuse equals child abuse equals removal. None of those presumptions are correct. All of them may apply in some cases. None applies in most cases,” Wexler said.
Asked why Indiana might have such a high rate of children in foster care, a Department of Child Services spokeswoman suggested there wasn’t one specific cause.
“Since 2013, our child abuse and neglect hotline has seen a 30 percent increase in calls, which has resulted in a rise in assessments of children perceived as being in potentially dangerous situations,” the spokeswoman, Noelle Russell, wrote by email. “We do attribute the increase partly to more public awareness of Indiana’s status as a mandatory reporting state.”
She noted that $25 million had recently been allocated to the department from a state surplus and that changes were underway.
A New Normal
The number of cases that land on Walker’s desk keeps climbing. She and her colleagues have had many successes. But she knows she’s not reaching all the children who need help.
She thinks a lot about all the children she isn’t serving ― those that are inevitably falling through the cracks. Or the students she is serving who have grown weary and tired.
In this job, she has seen traditional family structures turned upside down. She thinks of two of her students ― siblings in fourth and sixth grade ― who are on their 17th placement, now living hours away from their original home because it’s the only place where foster parents were available. There’s also the high school students who have become de-facto caregivers for their younger siblings while still needing their own care, and grandparents and great-grandparents who have to forgo a traditional retirement and instead tend to the needs of their relatives. Grandparents like Hicks.
Hicks and O’Brien used to joke that they would be bad at co-parenting. They would count their blessings that they met after their kids were already grown. But some of these differences have proven helpful. O’Brien is more strict than Hicks, and Hicks has come to appreciate the structure he provides.
They’ve gotten used to spending nights performing scenes from the movie “Coco” with Tessa, as tired as it might make them.
They haven’t gotten used to news about all the friends and neighbors who are also raising grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Such news has become eerily routine. Tessa’s best friend from school is also living with grandparents.
“There’s a lot of young people dying,” Hicks said from her kitchen table. “We see it in the paper every week. They’re going to keep using until they either die, or we get some treatment program that will help people who don’t have money.”
“Until then, kids are going to keep getting turned over to other people.”
Sarah Butrymowicz and Caroline Preston contributed reporting.