Dayton, Ohio (CNN)When Cyndi and Jesse Swafford were certified to become foster parents 10 years ago, they were told to expect to wait for a baby up to two or three years. Fast forward to today — with a foster license, a new baby can be placed with them within a week.
“It blows my mind,” Cyndi says. “There are babies in the hospital waiting because of this heroin epidemic for a family that will be able to take care of them.”
Walk into the Swafford home and you’ll find it filled with baby bottles, cribs and framed family portraits. In the last decade, Cyndi and Jesse have taken in 15 foster children.
“We’re a temporary gap between their parents getting clean and sober, and then, if we can reunify them, we will,” Cyndi says.
Foster care systems in many states are struggling to manage children whose parents are addicted to opioids. Nationally, 32% of children were removed from their homes due to drug abuse by a parent as of September 30, 2015, the most recent data available, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services foster care reporting system.
In Ohio, where the Swaffords live, that percentage is even higher. Fifty percent of children taken into custody in 2015 faced parental drug use when they were removed, and 28% of children removed that year had parents using opioids, according to Public Children Services Association of Ohio. “Nearly a third of children in custody are there because of the epidemic, and that number doesn’t count many children who continue to be served in their homes or who are placed with kin,” the association noted.
Ohio has become the crossroads of the crisis, as the intersection of interstates 70 and 75 has been dubbed by law enforcement the “distribution hub of America,” according to Montgomery County Sheriff Phil Plummer. And children of parents addicted to opioids are the “invisible victims of the epidemic,” according to the Children Services Association.
Of the 15 foster children Cyndi and Jesse have taken in over the last decade, 13 were there because one or both of their birth parents struggled with drug addiction.
“I’m confident that if we opened another bed in our home, it would be filled with another baby with an opiate issue,” Cyndi says, “It’s hard to hold a baby as they are withdrawing from heroin.”
Between 2000 and 2013, the rate of babies born addicted to drugs increased five times in the United States.
These babies are frequently born early and have low birth weights. As they withdraw, they tremble, have difficulty feeding and regulating their temperatures. They’re best known for their wailing, piercing cries as their bodies detox from the drugs. For some babies, these symptoms can last as long as four to six months, depending on how long they were exposed and the amount they were exposed to.While some studies have found these children are more likely to have behavioral issues when they are older, the data on long term effects are limited.
Helen Jones-Kelley, who runs the addiction services and mental health programs in Montgomery County, says foster parents aren’t rushing into the system to help the way they have in the past.
“There’s a fearfulness and it’s an understandable fearfulness because some of the children are grappling with their own addiction,” Jones-Kelley tells CNN. “It’s hard to understand that as a foster parent, you have to watch out for things going missing or the potential of a child dying from an overdose while in your care.”
But Jesse Swafford feels they have a responsibility to help young children of addicts.
“I hate to say it this way, but we clean up a little bit of the mess, so we need more people to help clean up the messes with us, but it’s just normal for us,” Jesse says. “People think we’re crazy and they don’t understand why we do it, or how we do it.”
Jewell Good, director of Children and Family Services in Montgomery County, says it’s increasingly a challenge to find placement for children of addicts.
“We’ve suffered a 25% reduction in foster families over the last year,” Good says, “We’re investing more this year in recruiting and training foster families.”
Children of addicts often need special care and counseling, and data shows they are staying in foster care longer because it can take months or years for their parents to get clean. Some never do.
The Swafford family has legally adopted two children, and is in the process of adopting a third.
Twelve-year-old Kalib and 10-year-old Brandon are biological brothers removed from their birth family in 2008 because of addiction issues. After 18 months in foster care, Cyndi and Jesse Swafford finalized their adoption.
The Swaffords havehelped Kalib and Brandon deal with the long-term cognitive effects that Cyndi and Jesse believe stem from opioids they were exposed to and the trauma of separation from their birth parents.
“It’s just been a lot better than I would’ve done with my other parents,” Kalib says, “These parents, Mom and Dad, never kept anything from me.”
But after 10 years, Kalib was ready to reunite with his birth father, James Fuller, who says he has been clean for the last 18 months.
“It’s his choice if he wants to go back on them, but I feel I can help in some way to motivate him to not use it again,” says Kalib.
Fuller says he was addicted to heroin for more than a decade. It cost him his family, his job, and even his home.
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“It took my whole life from me,” Fuller tells CNN anchor Poppy Harlow, “All my children, my job at one time, I was homeless out here for three years. Not knowing where my next meal was coming from. I was out here shoplifting to support my habit. It got bad. Many, many jail stays.”
Fuller says a recent overdose that nearly killed him is what forced him to get clean.
At a park in Dayton, Kalib and his adopted family invited CNN as he reunited with Fuller.
“God, I’ve missed you so much. Ain’t a day went by I haven’t thought about you,” Fuller says to Kalib. “We were going through so much when you was that age, man. I didn’t have no means to get you guys where you guys needed to be. I let you guys just stay where you was. I knew you were well took care of.”
“Glad you’re feeling better so I can see you,” Kalib told Fuller. “I’m glad now that you are able to be clean.”
That night, before he went to bed, Kalib told his adopted mother, Cyndi, that reuniting with his birth father, James, was the best day of his life.
It’s moments like these, Cyndi says, that encourage her and Jesse to continue fostering children of addicts, but she says “the realization that more kids for us means that someone else is hurting in a rough spot … whether the heroin epidemic comes to an end or not, there’s still going to be babies out there.”
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