NJ heroin epidemic leaving a growing number of children without their parents
Among the victims of New Jersey's struggle with a heroin-addiction epidemic are children whose parents are jailed or admitted into drug treatment programs.
"We're up to 750 children in Ocean County living in foster care," said Vicki Weiss, executive director of the nonprofit Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) for Children of Ocean County. "Over the last five years, that number has nearly doubled."
"Pretty much every child that we have in our current caseload of 168 children, all of the families, whether it's the parent or grandparents or both, have some kind of drug addiction."
Drug use by parents is one of the main reasons children are placed into foster homes, said Cindi Van Brunt, executive director of CASA for Children of Monmouth County.
It's not clear whether the heroin epidemic has led to an increase in children being placed into foster care elsewhere in the state, or whether the state keeps such statistics. A spokesman for the state Department of Children and Families' Division of Child Protection and Permanency did not respond to requests for comment.
Children removed from their homes and put in foster care are placed on a waiting list for a CASA volunteer, who is appointed by a judge, to represent them in court, according to Weiss. She said the children can be placed anywhere in the state.
"My program in Ocean County, in response to the demand for services, we have beefed up our training activities for child rights advocates. Typically, we have four trainings every year, and as of Jan. 1, we increased that to a total of six per the calendar year, and our goal this year is to train an additional 100 child rights advocates to advocate on behalf of these children in the courtroom," Weiss said.
"Prior to really assessing the problem with the heroin epidemic and the drug epidemic in Ocean County, we only had about 58 volunteers with the program."
Weiss said she has been working with nonprofit groups in the community, including Hope Sheds Light, a heroin awareness program in Ocean County, and Love Them To Life, which helps and assists mothers who have lost children to drug addiction.
"I'm trying to gain the knowledge in the community, collaborate with other agencies that are serving the same population that are facing these issues with substance abuse and bringing that knowledge back to the volunteers to better assist our children," Weiss said.
Weiss noted that in 2015, CASA of Ocean County advocated on behalf of 36 children, whose parents successfully went through recovery and all of the other ordered services by the court to become healthier parents, and 36 children in foster care went back home to be with their families.
"We also successfully saw 14 children adopted by their foster families, so a lot of children did receive the forever safe, permanent home that they deserve," Weiss said.
Weiss noted that national research found that children who have a court appointed special advocate spend an average of 13 months less in foster care than children that do not have an advocate. She also pointed out that the state Department of Children and Families Division of Child Protection and Permanency does try to keep siblings together.
"The majority of the kids that we serve start at age zero at hospitals. This would be children that are being brought into the world already addicted to drugs and alcohol and removed at birth, so zero to 5 really comprises the majority of the children that we serve," Weiss said. It's more of a challenge to get older children adopted, making it even more essential for a teenager to have a CASA volunteer.
"Usually, we're the only consistent adult in that child's life as they transition into Adulthood."