Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Ohio Sees Greater Need for CASA Volunteers in Face of Opioid Epidemic

Image of a little girl's face surrounded by darkness

The need for CASA volunteers to speak up for abused and neglected children affected by their parents’ opioid abuse is increasing.

Image of a little girl's face surrounded by darkness

The need for CASA volunteers to speak up for abused and neglected children affected by their parents’ opioid abuse is increasing.

The tentacles of Ohio’s opioid epidemic stretch beyond those in the throes of addiction. Not only do the latest statistics show that Ohio leads the nation in opioid overdose deaths, but the Public Children Services Association of Ohio notes an 11 percent increase in children in protective custody between 2000 and 2016.

Drug courts statewide are helping Ohioans take steps toward sobriety by providing treatment, monitoring, and accountability for offenders. CASA programs are also involved in protecting the best interests of abused or neglected children -- affected by addicted parents – through training volunteers who speak on their behalf.

The need for volunteers has never been greater.

Court Appointed Special Advocates are citizen volunteers, trained as guardians ad litem by the Ohio Supreme Court, CASA, or another provider approved by the local court. CASA volunteers investigate a child’s social and emotional background, make recommendations to the juvenile court regarding dispositions of cases, and monitor children until they no longer are involved in the court system. Several counties report that the number of volunteers needed to represent opiate-related cases involving children this year will far outpace last year’s total.

Henry County Family Court Judge Denise McColley said the opioid problem in northwest Ohio is part of the reason Defiance and Williams counties will join Henry County’s long-time existing CASA program. The judges have discussed expansion for several years, but “several things just fell into place” recently, she said.

Judge McColley said that 16 of the 20 new dependency or neglect cases filed in Henry County over the last year were related to opiate use of the parents. In one case, the great-grandmother has custody of the child because the mother, father, and grandmother are all involved with opioids.

“Up until two or three years ago, there would be one or two really awful cases where drugs were involved,” she said. It’s much more common now.

In Lucas County, there is such a dire need for volunteers that the Toledo Bar Association donated space from January through May in its monthly newsletter to the CASA program to recruit attorney advocates. The Toledo Bar Association Foundation awarded CASA a $15,000 grant to conduct two days of training last week. New attorney advocates, who attended the training, were sworn into service May 26 at a luncheon.

Ohio law requires a qualified GAL to be appointed to every abused or neglected child brought into the protection of the juvenile court system. The GAL can be a CASA volunteer or a paid attorney.

At the statewide level, Ohio CASA Executive Director Doug Stephens said demand is increasing yet the number of volunteers is not keeping pace.

CASA’s 40 programs covering 47 counties served 8,753 children in 2016, about 1,500 more than 2012. Meanwhile, the number of volunteers over that span remained relatively steady at 2,162, rising by 68.

Local CASA program data also reflect a increasing opioid-related caseload.

  • Seventy-seven percent of Shelby County’s 2017 abuse and neglect cases are heroin-related, compared with 56 percent in 2016. Even more disturbing, in none of these cases (10) has the child reunified with the parent.
  • Noble County reports that 10 children in March 2016 were removed from their homes with four cases due to parental drug abuse. A year later, 41 children were removed with 36 cases due to parental drug abuse.
  • In Miami County, the CASA/GAL program tracked 66 new child abuse and neglect victims in 2016. Twenty-six of those children had one or more caregivers addicted to heroin.

Despite the grim statistics, there could be promising news ahead. Stephens said two additional counties – besides Defiance and Williams – are in discussion to establish CASA programs: Ross and Scioto. Stephens noted the irony that one of the hardest hit areas of the state, southern Ohio, has nine counties without CASA programs.

“In some of the counties that need it the most, there are the least amount of resources,” Stephens said.

For 12 years, the Supreme Court has provided federal Court Improvement Program grant funds to CASA to start new programs in new counties.

Even with more CASA programs and volunteers coming on board, Stephens said the abuse and neglect cases involving opioids will continue to be more complex than typical cases. Children aren’t heading home anytime soon because their parents are unable to get sober.

“CASA volunteers work a case longer and handle fewer cases because of it,” he said. “It feeds on itself.” Burnout is also a worry with volunteers.

Judge McColley said the challenges of opioid-related abuse and neglect cases include getting parents into treatment and ensuring the parent is clean before placement.

“You want them to be with the child, but there really has to be a long period of stability,” she said.

That long-term stability could be out of reach for many. The Columbus Dispatch quoted the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services medical director about this aspect for a heroin story last year. “Not until you reach a year of sobriety do you have a 50-50 chance of long-term recovery,” Dr. Mark Hurst told the newspaper.

Despite all the challenges associated with these cases, Stephens said the relationship built between a CASA volunteer and a child, which could span several years, is one of the things that appeals to volunteers. “They stick with the kid,” he said.

With more than 2,000 volunteers in more Ohio counties than not, CASA programs try to keep up with the caseload, but more important try and protect the rights of children affected by opioids.