When foster mother Ashley L. Shollenberger picked up her youngest son at the hospital, he was just 3 days old and suffering withdrawal symptoms.
“My little guy had some maternal use passed onto him at birth,” the Reading mother said.
Shollenberger, 37, adopted Jordan, now 5, last year. She also has two older adopted children, son Andres Torres-Shollenberger, 19, and daughter Jaylie, 8.
Parental drug use, she said, was a consideration when all three of the children she fostered before adopting were removed from their birth families.
Shollenberger’s children are among those known as the hidden victims of the opioid crisis — children removed from their homes due to substance abuse by one or both parents.
About one in three children enter foster care due to parental substance abuse.
And their numbers are growing.
“The opioid crisis caused an increase in the number of kids in foster care,” said Kathleen Roach, executive director of foster care and permanency for Diakon Adoption and Foster Care, Topton.
The numbers, she said, steadily climbed from 2007 through 2017, and the spike was directly linked to an increase in parental substance abuse or addiction, with heroin and other narcotics being the drugs of choice.
“Basically,” she said, “prior to 2007 the rate of children in foster care was declining in Pennsylvania and throughout the country.”
The decade-long influx brought the total number of children in the system nationwide to an estimated 443,000, she said, and is responsible for what has been called the foster care crisis.
Pennsylvania had 25,441 children in foster care in 2018, according to the most recent report of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, which works to improve the health, education and well-being of children and youth in the state. Since 2014, the report said, the rate of children served in foster care has increased by 13%.
Children can wind up in foster care for several reasons, including physical or sexual abuse, neglect, abandonment and parental incarceration, illness or death, Roach said, and drug abuse often is a factor in all of these.
When parents are using drugs, Roach said, there is a lack of judgment and their children can be neglected or abused. An addicted parent might use his or her money for drugs and neglect to pay bills, buy food or be unable hold a job, she said. Medical and nutritional needs of their children might not be met, and older siblings might end up raising younger brothers and sisters because the parent is intoxicated or out on a bender.
“Really,” Roach said, “the kids are the victims of this whole opioid epidemic.”
More kids than parents
At the same time the need for foster families is growing, the number of foster parents is decreasing.
“It is a dual crisis,” Roach said.
Diakon places fewer than 30% of the children referred to the agency each month, she said. And while the goal is to increase that number, the agency is hampered by a drop in available foster families.
The shortage of foster families means 1 in 6 children placed in Pennsylvania’s foster care system are placed in group homes or residential treatment facilities, said Jill Troutman, vice president of marketing and development for the Children’s Home of Reading.
The need is not exclusive to CHOR or Diakon; other Berks County agencies are facing a similar shortage of available foster parents.
“We definitely have more kids waiting for placement than there are foster parents available,” said Gordon May, president and CEO of Concern.
The Fleetwood nonprofit provides foster care and other child welfare services.
“We are looking for parents all the time,” May said.
Recruiting foster parents has become more challenging, Roach said, since fewer younger adults are stepping forward, older foster parents are retiring and established foster parents are adopting or have full houses.
While recruitment is challenging, she said, retaining foster parents is another part of the equation. Ongoing training and support by an agency or a case manager are essential for retention and success, she said.
The support she received from the Children’s Home’s caseworkers, Shollenberger said, “has been fantastic.”
Shollenberger maintains her state-issued foster care license by taking required continuing education courses offered by CHOR, she said, but with three adopted children, she has no room to spare.
May said the training and support offered by Concern are “top notch,” and the agency works with foster and birth families on case-by-case goals. These might be reunification of the foster child with the birth family or adoption.
“Intensive family reunification services are offered,” he said, “if that is the goal.”
Close to half the children in foster care are reunited with their birth families, according to the Statewide Adoption and Permanency Network.
“Foster care is intended to be temporary,” said Deb Schoener, director of community-based programs for CHOR. “Reunion is always our first goal.”
Schoener said various area agencies work with children and parents by providing support for those struggling with mental health, substance abuse, housing, employment and other barriers to reunification, she said.
But funding for addiction treatment programs is limited, Roach said.
“If there was more funding we would have more resources to help parents conquer addiction and be reunited with kids,” she said.
The greatest need
The Berks-Lehigh foster care system has more than 600 children in need of homes, Troutman said. The greatest need is homes for older children and sibling groups. Homes also are needed for Spanish-speaking children.
While children under age 11 primarily make up the foster care population, Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children reported one-third of the kids in foster care are 13 and older. While rates of older youth entering care have decreased, they make up almost49% of re-entry cases, which means they return home and re-enter the system within one year.
Further, Troutman said, the average length of stay in foster care is just under a year, but when it comes to older youth, 33% of those over age 14 spend two or more years in care, compared to just 15% of younger children. Children 13 and older are the most difficult to place in a family setting, she said, and when homes are available, they are often a distance from the children’s home communities.
Troutman said less than 1 in 4 older youths leave the care system with a permanent family to rely on.
“When youth age out without a positive adult connection,” she said, “we know their outcomes will be poor.”
They are twice as likely as other students to drop out of high school and nearly half will not graduate. Those without diplomas have difficulty securing a job and struggle to pay for food, rent and utilities. They are more likely than their peers to be homeless, and about a quarter are arrested after leaving care.
Schoener said CHOR offers programs to help young people prepare for independent living and adulthood. Kids learn about healthy relationships, conflict resolution and other skills to help them to live harmoniously with others.
“The most important thing we do for our kids,” she said, “is help them identify those who are important in their lives — the key people they can rely on — and making sure those people are on board as the kids age out.”
‘One caring adult’
There does not have to be a custodial arrangement or adoption for a responsible adult to make a commitment to a young person, Troutman said.
“Research and practice,” she said, “show that having ongoing support from just one caring adult can make an enormous difference in the life of vulnerable youth.”
Sibling relationships also are emotionally powerful and critically important to preserve, Troutman said.
Since children in foster care tend to experience more losses of significant relationships, she said, sibling relationships can help maintain a sense of identity and belonging.
Shollenberger said her daughter and younger son are biologically sister and brother and are two of nine siblings. Her oldest son is the middle child of six biological siblings. All of her children keep in touch with their birth mothers and some of their siblings.
Sometimes relationships with birth families can be strained, she said, and it takes work to maintain healthy relationships.
Challenges and rewards
Most foster children enter the system with a degree of trauma or post-traumatic stress, Roach said. Traumatic events can include the sudden death of a loved one, witnessing or experiencing domestic or sexual abuse, and parental drug addiction, overdose and neglect.
“All of it adds up,” Shollenberger said. “There is trauma simply in being removed from a home and living with strangers. Imagine hearing ‘This lady is going to take care of you.’ That’s hard for a child to understand.”
Part of the challenge of being a foster parent, she said, is understanding and accepting that some of a child’s behaviors result from traumatic experiences.
The Children’s Home, Concern, Diakon and other area foster care and adoption agencies offer what is known as “trauma-informed care,” to help mitigate the effects of trauma.
“Kids are so resilient,” Shollenberger said. “It is amazing how they are able to overcome what they have been through.”
Shollenberger, a single mother, said she began fostering children while married. She continued caring for the children after her marriage ended and later adopted them on her own.
All types of parents are needed, Troutman said, including empty nesters, single parents and LGBTQ or other nontraditional families.
“We have all kinds of kids that need all kinds of families,” she said. “And, we are just waiting for your call.”
Adults over 21 are eligible to become foster parents, she said, noting that a series of screenings and training sessions are required before a potential foster parent is approved.
Shollenberger’s advice to those considering becoming foster parents is talk to others with experience and build a support system first.
Watching her children grow and mature as individuals is her reward, she said.
Daughter Jaylie is a blossoming athlete, who plays softball, runs on her school track team and is a cheerleader. She also is learning to train dogs through the 4-H Club.
“It is exciting seeing her talents emerge and sharing that with her,” Shollenberger said.
Jordan is developing into a confident and loving little boy, she said, and Andres recently got his driver’s license and graduated high school.
“I am so proud of him,” Shollenberger said. “He is managing the difficulties of his family of origin with such grace and love.”