Connecting Data: Foster Care Placements and Substance Abuse

Connecting Data: Foster Care Placements and Substance Abuse

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Tuesday, November 22, 2016

In Dutchess County, more children are entering foster care, even though rates of reported child abuse and neglect are not rising. What is the cause?

The number of children placed in foster care in Dutchess County has risen substantially since 2011. The 176 new placements in 2015 were the highest total since 2002, and represent a 59% increase from 2011, when 111 children entered care. This contrasts with a decline in placements over this period in Orange and Ulster counties. It should be noted that among the three counties, Dutchess still the lowest rate of foster care placement per 1,000 children.

Children are placed into foster care when they have been abused or neglected by their parent or guardian and that parent is unable to safely care for that child. Foster care is supposed to be a temporary placement for a child, after which they can return home to their parent, be adopted by a foster parent, or have legal guardianship transferred to a relative. Each county in New York State administers its own child welfare system, and rates of placement into foster care vary considerably across the state. The decision to place a child in foster care is guided by federal, state, and local policies, the assessments conducted by Child Protective Services (CPS) staff, historic practices within a county, and ultimately by the perspective of family court judges who decide whether or not to place a child into foster care.

The vast majority of children come into foster care as the result of a finding of abuse or neglect against their parent or guardian (while a small number are voluntarily placed into care), so the rate of child maltreatment must also be going up, right? Interestingly, no. The number of children abused or neglected in Dutchess has actually fallen since 2011.

It appears as though an increasingly high percentage of indicated (meaning some credible evidence of abuse or neglect was found) CPS investigations in Dutchess County are resulting in the placement of children into foster care, compared to less intensive interventions like preventive services, referrals to resources in the community, or ongoing monitoring by CPS and Family Court. It should be noted that the compelling factor for placement is the safety of the child, while the other interventions – like preventive services – are risk reduction strategies that may not ensure the child’s safety.

In 2011, there was 1 child placed in foster care for every 10 indicated cases of abuse or neglect. By 2015, that ratio had risen to almost 1 child out of every 5 cases. The chart below shows how the ratio in Dutchess compares to Ulster and Orange.

Dutchess has risen from 10% in 2011 to 18% in 2015 while Orange has fallen (28% to 19% during the same time period) and Ulster has remained relatively consistent (rising only 1% point, from 14% in 2011 to 15% in 2015).

So what is behind the increase in placements?  According to Sabrina Jaar Marzouka, Commissioner of the Dutchess County Department of Community and Family Services (DCFS), an increasing number of CPS cases involve serious substance abuse issues, particularly heroin and other opioids. Parents with serious substance abuse issues are often unable to care for their children, necessitating placement in foster care. Internal DCFS data indicates that 60% of recent foster care placements were the result of parental substance abuse. While DCFS does not track the specific substances being abused, New York State data shows a 53% increase in admissions for treatment of heroin and prescription addiction in Dutchess County since 2011.

Across the state, an increasing number of babies are being born addicted to drugs. Newborns with a positive toxicology for drugs are often placed in foster care upon discharge from the hospital. In Dutchess County, the rate of newborns with a positive toxicology for drugs rose by 160% from 2010 to 2014, outpacing the 76% increase statewide (excluding New York City).

To respond to this rise in substance abuse related foster care placements, in 2016, Dutchess County hired substance abuse counselors to work alongside CPS investigators to assess individuals who may have substance abuse issues and help families access treatment. DCFS also reorganized how preventive service programs are delivered in Dutchess County.  Preventive services are used to keep children out of foster care by adding supports and services in the home, and can also be employed as an aftercare service to ensure that children do not re-enter the foster care system.  DCFS expanded contracts with community-based organizations, such as Astor Services for Children and Families and Berkshire Farm Center and Services for Youth, to increase preventive service programs.  These services emphasize trauma-informed care with all clients, including those with substance abuse issues, to lessen the effects of prior trauma and to reduce the traumatic experiences of the foster care system itself.

Preliminary data provided by Dutchess County shows that these initiatives appear to be reversing the trend of the past several years:

 The County is also engaged in several Family Court initiatives to make that system more sensitive to the unique challenges of families struggling with substance abuse issues, including piloting a specialized court to handle substance abuse-related foster care cases. Other efforts with family court have focused on making the court process more efficient and to reduce the time it takes for a child to be adopted out of foster care. The opioid crisis that is sweeping Dutchess County and the rest of the nation shows no signs of slowing. Child welfare systems will need to continue to develop approaches to working with families with substance abuse issues, and may need to be prepared to deal with a sustained increase in the number of children being placed into foster care. To read more about the Mid-Hudson Valley’s foster care admissions data, visit our indicator.

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