WSAZ Investigates: Drug epidemic overwhelms West Virginia foster care system

Published: May. 13, 2016 at 7:15 PM EDT
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HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- With three adult kids of her own, Huntington resident Renee Law says she had no idea a toddler and a teenager would join the family. She never planned on being a foster mom, but it was a decision she does not regret.

Law and her husband were involved in a ministry in downtown Huntington in the summer of 2015 that aimed to help prostitutes turn their lives around.

"Through that we met a lady on jail visits and when she got out of jail, we tried to help her get on her feet," Law said. "She ended up back in jail"

While the mother was behind bars, she had two young girls who needed a stable home.

"Her children went into the state's custody," Law said. "It was really like God said, 'You don't need to just use your mouth, you need to use your home too.' "

The 2-year-old and 14-year-old have been with the Laws for almost a year now. Law says becoming a foster parent opened her eyes to the issues facing the foster care system.

Prostitution, drugs and other crimes are overwhelming the West Virginia foster care system. Hundreds of kids in our region are losing their parents to the drug epidemic, whether mom and/or dad are creating an unsafe home environment causing Child Protective Services (CPS) to step in, behind bars for drug charges, or dead from an overdose.

Chad Messer, a home resources coordinator for NECCO, an agency that helps CPS find foster homes for children, says there are not enough foster homes to meet the demand right now.

"Referrals go out everyday," Messer said. "They have increased because of the drug epidemic and because we are meeting that need. There will come a time, some time this week, that I will run out of families again."

Officials with NECCO's corporate office say the agency have received 1,662 referrals for foster care homes since 2011. Only about half of those kids, 889 of them, were able to be accepted. As more kids are adopted, referrals go up. Those officials say a vast majority of these children were "pulled from homes due to drug involvement" and that, in reality, the number could be much higher because when they take a child into their care, not all of the information about the situation is made available.

Messer says he would much rather children be able to stay with their biological parents. With the drug epidemic, though, he says it's all about self-control.

"What needs to change is somebody's heart and their mind," Messer said. "We get a lot of referrals for children that are born in the throes of addiction or they're detoxing and we need homes that can have specialized training that can handle the onset of symptoms a child has."

Although knowledge of how to handle those children is preferred, Messer says they provide that training at NECCO. If they are not able to complete a match for a child, another agency in the state will try.

"Hopefully, between all of us, we will find a good loving home for that child or those children," Messer said. "If that doesn't come about, it's going to be up to what CPS mandates. That could be that that child might stay in that home if it's not life-threatening or that child may end up going to a shelter."

NECCO currently has 233 kids in foster care and serve a total of 232 in other programs in West Virginia. They serve out of offices in Huntington, Charleston and Logan.

It's not an easy job, Messer says, to hear about how these kids are affected by drugs. He says he encounters many young children who know more about the drug culture than he does.

"I respect CPS so much because they actually have to go out to this field and find these children in these conditions," Messer said. "We read about it and I hang my head low everyday when I go home."

It's a tough job to take home, but Messer says he sees the good in what he does when he finds a new foster family.

"I find hope every time I got out and find a wonderful family," Messer said. "Either they are seasoned professionals, they have done this for years, or perhaps they are just really eager. They're educated. They have a zeal. I can work with that."

There is a more personal motivation for Messer, as well. He has an adopted daughter. She was tiny and weak when they met her because of how much heroin her mother did while she was pregnant. Now, his daughter is thriving, and Messer says that should be an example of what can be done to fight this issue.

"She's not just an adopted kid, she is a Messer girl," Messer said. "We are proud of her and she has overcome a whole lot. If she can, so many other kids can too."

"We need parents," Law said. "We need families who are willing to take kids in."

While many of these kids have had a tough life, Law wants people to remember that the parents have too. She says it is often a pattern of behavior passed on to the next generation and drug addicts should be given another chance to become good parents.

"We also need to show a non-judgmental type of love to these parents, as well, because a lot of times they're just doing what they've been taught and what they've been shown from the previous generation," Law said.

Law suggests trying to get drug addicts treatment. However, if a parent can't get clean, the child needs to be in a safe environment she says.

"Get them into rehab, give them some opportunity to get their lives together so that the families can be put back together," Law said. "That's obviously the best thing that can happen is for them to turn their life around and to reinstate the family. If they choose not to do that, you've got to think about the kids first."

She says the best solution would be for the kids to be in their own homes if it is a safe environment, but if there are issues in the home, to give them an outlet where they can receive unconditional love and guidance. She is in a new Huntington ministry right now called Rebuild where they try to provide that for both parents in the community and their kids.

"I think the answer for the kids is to find some place where they're loved and where they're taken care of," Law said.

Law is asking more families to step outside their comfort zones to take in a child in need.

As for her foster daughters, Law says their mother is still in prison. She is going through court proceedings right now to determine if she will ever regain custody. Law says their plan all along was to reunite the girls with their mother, but they will do whatever is best for the children, even if that means adoption.