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Ohio AG lends financial boost for Cuyahoga and Summit County foster children displaced by opioid crisis

... General's Office selected three Northeast Ohio counties to receive a financial boost for foster family recruitment as the opioid epidemic continues to uproot thousands of children from their homes every year. Cuyahoga, Summit and Stark counties were ...

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By Courtney Astolfi, CLEVELAND, Ohio -- The Ohio Attorney General's Office selected three Northeast Ohio counties to receive a financial boost for foster family recruitment as the opioid epidemic continues to uproot thousands of children from their homes every year   Cuyahoga, Summit and Stark counties were among eight counties picked for the pilot program that will provide money to cover a full-time staff member dedicated to foster family recruitment and search efforts in each county, the office announced. The need for foster families has grown at an alarming rate in the roughly seven years since the opioid epidemic took holdDrug arrests and overdoses -- fatal or otherwise -- often force kids out of their family homes and into the county's custody. There were more than 15,000 children in foster care in Ohio as of September, but less than 7,200 foster families available to serve as caretakers, attorney general Mike DeWine said in a statement released Wednesday. Finding suitable foster families was tough enough before the epidemic, but even more difficult now, said Wendy Tracy, executive director at Pathway Caring for Children, which works to place foster kids from Cuyahoga, Summit and Stark counties, among others.  A unique set of challenges come with kids who hail from homes where a caregiver is addicted to opiates or has died from an overdoseChildren are often traumatized, or they exhibit behavioral issues and developmental delays that a potential foster family may struggle to handle, Tracy said.  In one recent case that Pathway Caring for Children handled, workers had to find a family willing to take on a baby who was suffering from opioid withdrawals, Tracy said.  "These children require special families because (they) come from very hard situations," Tracy said. Parents who die from overdoses often leave behind more than one child, meaning officials must often find foster families that are willing to house several siblings at a time, Tracy said.  Beyond that, agencies strive to find families that seem like a good match for each individual child. An ideal foster family should also be located in a child's home school district so that they can continue their classes without switching schools.  "Finding a right match and getting them in that right home is so important, so they're not constantly bouncing around," Tracy said. A greater pool of available foster families would mean fewer barriers to finding the right home for a displaced childDeWine's office hopes to expand that pool by hiring staff members focused exclusively on foster family recruitment.  The eight counties involved in the new program were chosen because they were hit particularly hard by the opioid epidemic, DeWine's office said. Allen, Clark, Fairfield, Highland and Montgomery were also selected. The recruitment efforts will be funded through a $1 million grant and administered by Waiting Child Fund, a foster care-focused non-profit organization. DeWine said he hoped to address "the growing chasm" between available foster families and the increasing number of children who need them when he announced the program earlier this year.  The attorney general's office estimated that half of the children in foster care are there because of substance abuse from one or both parentsAnd nearly 3,000 more kids are in the system now than they were seven years ago, when the opioid crisis emerged, the office said. Summit County, for example, saw a nearly 50-percent jump in child custody cases in 2016 due in part to the opioid epidemicThe number of children in Summit County's care in 2015 was 601In 2016, that number had risen to 687. And Cuyahoga County witnessed more than 2,000 children in foster care as of May 2017 -- its highest rate since 2011.  DeWine announced the program in August as part of a series of solutions meant to combat the widening foster family gap. In addition to the eight full-time recruiters, DeWine's office launched a web site that provides the information needed to become a foster familyThe office also created a dedicated email address that expedites the background check process for foster family applicants. DeWine asked Ohioans who may be interested in becoming a foster parent to "make that leap" and consider opening their house to children "who could use a stable, loving home."   To comment on this story, please visit Wednesday's crime and courts comments page. 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