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Surge in child abuse, neglect cases as opioid epidemic worsens

An Eyewitness News iTeam investigation finds a disturbing rise in the number of child abuse and neglect cases as the opioid epidemic worsens. (WCHS/WVAH)

There are many effects that trickle down as a result of the opioid crisis, which has only gotten worse in West Virginia in recent years. But one that is not often talked about is what happens to the children of those struggling with addiction.

The Eyewitness News iTeam looked into the numbers and found a disturbing rise in child abuse and neglect cases over the years and talked to officials who work closely with these cases.

"In July, we got our youngest," said Jennifer Price, a foster parent. "He came home to us from the hospital at 2 weeks old, and he's been with us ever since."

Ben Price, also a foster parent, said they then also received his brother, who was staying with a grandmother.

The Prices adopted 6-year-old Evander and 22-month-old Theo after becoming foster parents two years ago. They have taken in four other foster children during that time, all with one thing in common.

"Each has been affected in some way by the drug epidemic that's in our state," Jennifer said.

Little Theo was born exposed to drugs and his brother Evander was brought into the Prices' home at 4 years old. They said his behavior showed what kind of lifestyle he had been exposed to during his young life.

"The things that they've seen or heard, they remember,” Jennifer said. “That's what's been surprising to me, what a 2 or 3 year old can repeat to you what they've seen or that they've heard."

The Prices are called on frequently to take in children whose parents have lost their parental rights, until either they can regain them or the child can be placed with other family members. Often, there are more children in need of a home than available foster families. But they are not the only ones feeling this strain.

"In the last two years alone, the number of children who we have served through CASA has doubled, and we have a waiting list of hundreds of children who are waiting for a volunteer advocate," said Kim Runyon Wilds, program coordinator at Western Regional at Court Appointed Special Advocates.

CASA advocates for the best interest of abused and neglected children and serves as a child's voice in court. Wilds has seen an increased need for advocates as the number of child abuse and neglect cases has risen.

"It's been a dramatic increase for the counties that my program serves. In Kanawha County alone, we've had in the last two years alone, a 35 percent increase in petitions filed," Wilds said.

This has resulted in an increased demand and a shift in the type of workload for those who work in the court system such as Kanawha County Circuit Court Judge Duke Bloom.

"I used to spend probably, say three years ago, a day or a day and a half a week on abuse and neglect cases," Bloom said. "Now, it's easily 40 to 50 percent of my time are abuse and neglect cases."

In Kanawha County, there were 44 juvenile neglect cases in 1995. Ten years later, in 2005, the number of cases more than tripled to 165. By 2015, that number more than doubled to 367. Just one year later in 2016, that number again almost doubled to 656. So far in 2018, there have already been 240 juvenile neglect cases, which is almost the total number of cases for all of 2010.

"We're on track now, if the numbers remain consistent, I think will surpass 700 abuse and neglect cases this year," Bloom said. "In my view, there's a direct relationship between the increased drug epidemic that I think we're having now and the epidemic of these children who are being neglected and abused."

Wilds said at least 85 to 90 percent of the cases that they work on have a drug component.

"It's usually one or both of the parents having a drug addiction so severe that their parenting has been impacted and their children are not safe in the home anymore," she said.

That leaves foster parents, such as Ben and Jennifer, doing their best to provide a stable environment, whether it's for a week, a few months or a lifetime.

"It's really kind of sad and scary,” Ben said. “Sad for those who are being affected, but particularly for the kids who we see because we see them and they're innocent and they just want a normal life. They just want their mommies and daddies, and it doesn't matter what's going on with them, they just want their family. It's just really a terrible thing."

The Prices became foster parents through the organization NECCO. For more information on becoming a foster parent, visit necco.org.

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