Opioid Epidemic Drives More Ga. Kids Into State Care

Alison Guillory / WABE

An audio version of this story

Eddie* remembers when his addiction to painkillers started.

The now-28-year-old Ellijay resident got hit in the face with a baseball, broke his nose and got a prescription for hydrocodone. He was 16.

“Just liked the way they made me feel,” he says. “They took the pain away. They gave me confidence. It just kind of stayed in the back of my mind.”

About a year later, Eddie complained to a co-worker that he’d hurt his back during baseball practice. She handed him some more pills.

“I realized how easy it was to get them from her, you know? All I had to do was complain a little bit,” he says. “So I started using that pretty much regularly to get them from her.”

He says by the time he was 18, he was addicted to painkillers. He got arrested three years later when he forged a stolen check to buy drugs.

Eddie got probation, since it was his first felony offense, but half the time he wouldn’t show up for check-ins out of fears he’d be drug tested.

Soon, he was in and out of jail. He’d get clean while he was in, but fall right back in with his old friends – and old habit – when he was released.

By his 20s, Eddie had two little boys with his then-wife. He tried to quit using painkillers once, after almost a year in jail. But after two weeks, he relapsed and nearly overdosed.

“When I came to, my wife had just come home with the baby, and I didn’t even know where I was at,” he says. “I guess while I was out in a blackout, I had been really loud and started a fight with one of the neighbors, and someone called law.”

The police called the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services, or DFCS. Eddie’s kids were eventually taken into foster care.

My heart was broken, but I couldn’t stop,” he says. “I don’t know if that makes any sense. And the fear of withdrawals kept me using. I mean withdrawals from opiates is like death. So instead of, when the kids getting gone, instead of doing better, it made me do worse.”

More Kids In Care

To DFCS, Eddie’s story isn’t unusual.

The nation’s prescription drug and heroin epidemic has victims beyond those who are using drugs. For the children of people struggling with addiction, DFCS officials say, the consequences can be traumatic.

As of mid-April, drug abuse has been a factor in about 40 percent of the nearly 2,400 cases in Georgia where a child was removed from a family. That’s up from about 25 percent over the same time period just two years ago. 

In Gilmer County, where Eddie lives, drug abuse has factored into nearly 80 percent of removals this year.

Amy Bradshaw, the Child Placement Services supervisor for the county, says right now meth is the bigger driver of kids into care, in part because painkiller abuse is easier to hide.

“If they’re on prescription drugs, they doctor shop,” Bradshaw says. “They may show us the one prescription from the doctor, and the pill count’s there. They take a drug screen, they’re positive for what they’re prescribed. And then we’re stuck.”

Bradshaw says there’s now another drug that’s growing in popularity.

“Heroin in Ellijay, even five years ago, we didn’t have it,” she says. “And it’s become the new thing, unfortunately.”

Statewide, the number of children in foster care has ballooned to more than 12,500. Gilmer officials say it has 93 children in state custody right now, about double what Bradshaw says is normal.

She says drugs aren’t the only reason the numbers are up, but they’re a major factor.

“We can’t handle the volume of cases that are coming in the door because there just aren’t enough people here to do all that,” she says. “There’s not enough foster homes. There’s nowhere for these kids to go when they come into foster care. They’re being separated from their siblings. That’s causing tons of trauma to them, so then we have their issues that we’re dealing with.”

Reunifying Families

Another person who’s witnessed the impact of drugs on area families is Judge John Worcester. He used to be the chief juvenile court judge for the Appalachian Judicial Circuit, which includes Gilmer County.

Worcester also oversaw the circuit’s family treatment court, an accountability program that aims to reunify families.

“It was getting to the point that we were taking somebody into care about every day,” he says.

Worcester, who was recently appointed to the circuit’s Superior Court, says the family treatment program has had a lot of success reuniting families. But he says resources are thinning as the opioid epidemic grows in Georgia.

“We’re stretching our capacity at this particular point in time,” Worcester says. “To go any further, we’ll need to hire treatment people, more case managers, more compliance officers, which of course takes money.”

Worcester says the court is set up to serve about 50 people, but right now 64 are enrolled.

A Notable Success

Eddie entered Judge Worchester’s court a few years ago and was able to overcome his addiction.

He went to a halfway house, got clean and eventually got his two boys back.

“I was just ecstatic, smiles, constantly smiling,” he says recalling that moment. “I felt relieved. I felt like something had been lifted off of me.”

Eddie has been sober for three years now and is a sponsor for other people who are recovering from an addiction.

He says a lot of the people he used to take painkillers with, though, weren’t so lucky.

“I know a couple of them are dead. I don’t talk to them but I hear things,” he says. “And the ones that aren’t dead most of them are in jail. In and out of jail. I see them in the papers. Jails, prisons or dead. That’s all I hear about them, mostly.”

Asked if any of those people had kids, Eddie answers quietly, “Yes.”

To protect the privacy of his children, Eddie is only identified by his first name in this story.