Valuable insight into Wilkes County’s chronic problem with unusually large numbers of children in foster care was shared during the Wilkes State of Addiction Community Forum on Feb. 28.

The key is catching problems to prevent situations from reaching the point where they result in children being placed in foster care, said Cynthia Coffey, a social work supervisor in child protective services at the Wilkes Department of Social Services.

This was Coffey’s answer when Fred Brason, Project Lazarus president and CEO, asked what could be done to keep family situations from getting to the point where children must be removed from them and put in foster care.

Moravian Falls-based Project Lazarus is a nonprofit organization that provides training and technical assistance to communities and clinicians nationwide addressing overdose deaths and other prescription medication issues.

Coffey said 62% of the Wilkes DSS cases that resulted in 221 Wilkes County children currently being in foster care resulted from substance abuse issues in homes of these children.

She said the number of abuse or neglect reports to Wilkes DSS varies from month to month, largely due to variability in the amount and types of controlled substances coming into the county and related law enforcement action. Wilkes DSS social workers are called in when children are at the scene of drug overdoses and drug arrests.

She said school personnel and others should look out for red flag situations such as the power bill in a child’s home not being paid even though the parents have jobs and report them. “If you suspect something, it’s important to call us. We can’t make an effort to do anything about it until we know about it.”

Coffey said people too often think problems they observe will take care of themselves or that “I’m not seeing what I’m really seeing. They want to think the best of people.

“If we can catch it on the front end before a family goes down that road of addiction where they lose everything they have and can’t take care of their children… and refer them to treatment, that makes all the difference in the world about whether those kids are going to have to be removed from the home.”

Coffey said a reported situation can be moved to case management and Wilkes DSS can become involved with the family and offer a broad range of services from multiple organizations if enough evidence exists to show the situation meets screening criteria. This means it adversely impacts a child. Examples include an adult in the home having a positive drug test and substandard housing conditions.

“Often at that point is when we discover that there is a substance abuse issue…. We can work with those families between three and six months under state policy, before we have to seek court intervention.”

She said one effective strategy in case management is to have adults in the home research services that address the identified problems because this helps them understand the impact of the behavior on a child.

One of the biggest challenges at this point is transportation to services. “They can say they’re willing to change and have services, but if they don’t have transportation or their driver’s license, they can’t get there and we end up in court” and a child goes in foster care, said Coffey.

A grant-funded Daymark Recovery Services program provides transportation to Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem for pregnant Wilkes women who test positive for drugs because they’re considered high risk. It provides them with other services as well.

Brason said many people think that if DSS is called, children are automatically taken from a home. He said it’s important for the community to know that a process exists before children are removed from their homes.

Coffey said reasonable efforts are made to keep a child in his or her family. If a judge orders foster care, DSS must try to place a foster child with next of kin or even a close family friend.

Without enough foster families to accommodate the number of Wilkes children in foster care, she added, “we have sat at the (DSS) office for children for weeks at a time waiting for a placement.” A local motel provides a place for these children to stay overnight and have a shower, plus the kids are provided transportation back and forth to school.”

Coffey said it was extremely rare to have children waiting for foster care placement when she first started with Wilkes DSS, “but now at least every month we’ve got children waiting for a placement.”

The long-term adverse emotional consequences of being placed in foster care and the situations that lead to foster care should be ample justification for being observant and reporting suspected child abuse or neglect.

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