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Opioid crisis straining resources at Child Protective Services

Payne Horning
The Onondaga County Department of Children and Family Services

Stacy Alvord, the director of Oswego County's Department of Social Services, says she's never seen anything quite like the opioid epidemic in her 40 years of work in child welfare.

"In the last decade - five years, things have really  gotten scarier as far as  just how toxic these drugs are," Alvord said.

On the front lines of this battle are the caseworkers at Child Protective Services, who Alvord says are seeing an increase in violence in the community.

"Some of these drugs  will make people psychotic and even have impacts for permanent brain impairment, so it gets very volatile at times in the field for them," Alvord said. "It’s very exhausting work and we're doing our best to provide whatever supports we can  to our caseworkers."

Alvord recently had to add funds to the overtime budget because of the increased workload that the opioid crisis and some office vacancies are having on her staff. From 2017 to 2018, the number petitions the Oswego County Department of Social Services filed increased 40 percent from 308 to 511. Many of those were requests to remove a child from a home where drugs were being used and place them with a relative or in foster care.

"More than half of those petitions that we filed, families were in over their heads when it came to addiction," Alvord said. 

The situation is much the same in Onondaga County. According to James Czarniak, deputy commissioner of Child Welfare, reports of opioid use in the home and the resulting investigations and removals of children are all up over the last 5-7 years. That's starting to have a cumulative effect.

"The more cases the court has to process, the longer everybody’s cases become because the court timeline just can’t catch up to the volume that’s going in there," Czarniak said.

Even if Child Protective Services is able to remove the child from that home, the ultimate goal is to get them back by helping the parent recover from their disease. But Czarniak says the issue with opioids is that the treatment cycle takes longer than recovery from other drugs, adding to each caseworker's workload.

"You can open up clinics, you can open up providers, but really helping get families to them and consistently staying with those services requires a lot of support and help and all the while, we have a child who's in foster care that needs a lot of attention because that's a very traumatic event for them as well," He said. "The struggle for child welfare is where does your caseworker put their time the most when you have those two major things - a child who needs to be looked after, cared for, kept in a setting that's least traumatic, and then work on a plan to get the parent what they need to be able to reunify and then if that doesn’t happen, having an alternative plan like a relative or somewhere safe and meet the aspirations we want for that child - to be happy, healthy, go to school? That's just a lot."

Payne Horning is a reporter and producer, primarily focusing on the city of Oswego and Oswego County. He has a passion for covering local politics and how it impacts the lives of everyday citizens. Originally from Iowa, Horning moved to Muncie, Indiana to study journalism, telecommunications and political science at Ball State University. While there, he worked as a reporter and substitute host at Indiana Public Radio. He also covered the 2015 session of the Indiana General Assembly for the statewide Indiana Public Broadcasting network.