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Children and Youth Services Sees Firsthand Effects of Opioids

by and on June 18, 2017 5:00 AM

The opioid crisis is shaping the way Children and Youth Services workers operate, as caseworkers, who enter the homes of clients and become intimate with their lives, deal more and more with drug and alcohol addiction.

This comes at a time when CYS offices across the state are reporting a significant increase in the number of child abuse and neglect referrals, according to the Child Welfare Resource Center.

Julia Sprinkle, director of CYS of Centre County, said now, the majority of cases, perhaps as many as two thirds, have drugs or alcohol as one of the factors. She said that was not the case when she started with CYS 25 years ago.

Sprinkle said cases are often far more complicated than a single isolated issue, such as substance abuse. Struggling parents can be battling mental health or the loss of a job, which can then threaten the stability of the home.

When she began her work with CYS, she said much more time was spent with tasks such as getting families to appointments or the grocery store.

“Now, it’s much more about safety and what is happening right now and in the moment and addressing those kinds of issues,” Sprinkle said.

Jacki Conway, a placement caseworker with CYS for 15 years, said only a handful of her cases involved drugs and alcohol when she started, and that the recent surge in opioid use has made cases much more complex.

“It does make it very challenging,” Conway said. “Oftentimes, we'll see a lot of parents that are struggling with addiction issues who, separate from that, are actually really good parents. When you just throw that into the mix, it creates a huge safety concern for their children.”

She said that while some turn their lives around and stay sober, a child being placed out of the home sometimes is not enough and it has made her realize how tough it is to break addiction.

“You can tell that these parents love their children desperately, and for some of them, it's to the point where their children are removed from them and still that addiction is plaguing them, despite the fact that they've lost what's most important to them in their lives.”

Conway confirmed what many would assume about working as a CYS caseworker: It is tough, and a massive amount of trust is put in the caseworker to reunite children with their families as soon as possible, if they have to be placed elsewhere for safety reasons. They also are guardians of information divulged during interviews and interactions.

But, even though there are bad days and sometimes intense interactions, Conway said families’ successes and support from other office staff are what keeps her going. She said that because she has been doing the job for 15 years, she has been able to observe some of the children she has helped go on to become successful parents themselves.

One of the best outcomes for an interaction between CYS and a family is what is known as a one-and-done. That is when a call comes in and a CYS caseworker evaluates the situation, then refers the family to one of the many publicly available services.

Centre County has 28 CYS caseworkers, seven supervisors, two paralegals and eight support staff. The other two units at CYS, besides placement, are the intake caseworkers, who take calls and screen cases, and protective services, which deals with ongoing cases.

In response to increased incidents of drug and alcohol abuse, the training for caseworkers is evolving. The Child Welfare Resource Center, where CYS workers train, now provides instruction on how to identify pills, drug paraphernalia and the signs of people being under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Sprinkle said there is an increasing need for foster parents in Centre County so local children can remain in their community, even though they may not be able to stay in their home any longer. If a local foster parent cannot be found, children might have to be placed farther away.

(Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series on the opioid crisis facing Centre County and the nation.)

This story was produced by the staff at the Centre County Gazette. It was re-published with permission. The Centre County Gazette is a weekly publication, available at many locations around Centre County every Thursday morning.

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