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Pilot program helps families harmed by parental opioid abuse

• Mar 22, 2017 at 5:49 PM

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine announced today the creation of a new pilot program that will serve families harmed by parental opioid abuse in more than a dozen southern Ohio counties.

Ohio START (Sobriety, Treatment, and Reducing Trauma) is an intervention program that will provide specialized victim services, such as intensive trauma counseling, to children who have suffered victimization due to parental drug use. The program will also provide drug treatment for parents of children referred to the program.

"Children with a parent or parents addicted to drugs tend to stay in foster care longer, and they enter foster care having experienced significant trauma. While mom and dad are high, these kids may go days without food or supervision. They may have witnessed a parent inject drugs, overdose, or even die," DeWine said. "By creating this program, we hope to help these 14 counties give the silent victims of the opioid epidemic — the children — the best care possible, while also helping their parents recover from their addiction."

According to the Public Children Services Association of Ohio, 50 percent of children placed in foster care in 2015 were placed due to abuse and neglect associated with parental drug use.

Ohio START will bring together child protective services, peer mentors, the courts, and behavioral health and treatment providers to work closely with families whose children have been abused or neglected due to parental addiction in Athens, Clermont, Clinton, Fairfield, Fayette, Gallia, Highland, Jackson, Perry, Pickaway, Pike, Hocking, Ross, and Vinton counties.

The program will primarily be funded through a $3.5 million Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) grant from the Ohio Attorney General's Office which will be shared among the counties over two and a half years. These grant funds will be specifically spent to help county child welfare agencies identify children who have been victimized due to parental drug use and provide them with specialized treatment for any resulting behavioral or emotional trauma. The grant will also fund victim services for parents with underlying victimization that may be contributing to their addiction.

Casey Family Programs, which partnered with the Ohio Attorney General's Office to develop the Ohio START program, is providing an additional $75,000 for the pilot program. Both grants will be administered by the Public Children Services Association of Ohio.

Child welfare workers will work with a certified peer mentor to meet with each family once a week to ensure the safety of the child and provide support to parents. If a child can safely stay in the home during this process, the child can do so with the oversight of caseworkers. Otherwise, kids will have regular visitation with their parents as they undergo drug treatment, which will be paid for by either Medicaid or private insurance.

Family reunification will occur after parents have a minimum of six months of documented sobriety.

"Children are the innocent, invisible victims of the opioid epidemic in Ohio. Ohio’s children services system has experienced an 11 percent increase in the number of children removed from their homes and a 19 percent increase in children staying in care longer due to how challenging it is for parents addicted to opioids to successfully recover," said Angela Sausser, executive director of the Public Children Services Association of Ohio. "This grant opportunity allows us to pilot a model that could positively improve children’s safety, well-being, and permanency with their birth families."

"This new investment with Appalachian child welfare agencies recognizes two important issues for Ohio: That the opioid crisis is breaking apart families as parents struggle with drug addiction, leading to the removal of children from the homes and placement with family or in foster care; and that the Appalachian communities and service providers lack critical resources needed to solve this crisis," said Judge Patricia FitzGerald, senior director of Casey Family Programs. "This partnership will strengthen Ohio communities and help heal families struggling with opioids and other drugs."

"This important investment into children and families by Attorney General DeWine could not have come at a more critical time for my agency and the 13 other agencies in southern Ohio," said Gallia County Children Services Director Russ Moore. "We are facing an epidemic and we are in desperate need of any lifelines we can acquire. The Attorney General has provided us with a much-needed lifeline."

Ohio START is modeled on a similar program in Kentucky that resulted in about half as many children returning to foster care due to parental addiction. Parents involved in the Kentucky program were also found to have twice the sobriety rate.

The effectiveness of Ohio START will be studied by partners with Ohio State University's College of Social Work and the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs at Ohio University. If the program is found to be a success, it may expand to other counties.

The $3,535,250 in VOCA grants allotted to this program are being awarded as part of the "Ohio Attorney General's Expanding Services and Empowering Victims Initiative," which was created in 2015 to determine how VOCA funds, which come from federal settlements, fines, and fees, could best be spent to serve victims of crime in Ohio.

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