Special Report: The foster care system and opioid epidemic become more intertwined
WILKES-BARRE (WOLF) -- 17-year-old Katelyn Fenner is in foster care. She wound up there three years ago, after her grandmother found a bag of needles under her mother’s couch. Katelyn’s mother has been addicted to heroin for fifteen years.
“I hardly hear from her and that’s always going to be like a thorn in the heart because you don’t know where they’re at, you don’t know what they’re doing. I don’t know if she’s even alive right now," says Katelyn.
“I didn’t really get to go to school that often because I felt obligated to take care of the household since she didn’t feel well. I felt like I had to keep everything together. My whole life I’ve been moving around the place and going to like nine different schools. It’s been really difficult for me," she shares.
Unfortunately, Katelyn’s story isn’t the only one like it. In Luzerne county alone, there are 485 children in the foster care system with only eighty-five foster care homes. An estimated between 75 and 90% of children there, are there because of the drug epidemic.
The Drug Enforcement Administration’s latest report from 2015 shows Luzerne County’s increase in heroin usage from the previous year at 578%.
Jason Harlen runs Wyoming Valley Drug and Alcohol Rehab and says that four out of five heroin users started out addicted to opioid painkillers.
"We see people every day that get referred to us for evaluations because their kids were taken away due to substance abuse, neglect, whatever it might be," says Jason.
Cathy Ryzner is a Certified Recovery Specialist at Wyoming Valley Drug and Alcohol Rehab. She is now ten years sober and life looks much different than it used to, but says when she was in the depths of her addiction, she was physically there for her son, but emotionally detached.
“It was hard, it was hard on my son, obviously, hard on my family. I stopped being a good sister, a good mother, a good friend. Everything went by the wayside, everything but that addiction. It was all about the addiction, it was all about the heroin," she shares.
With the rise in addiction comes a rise in babies born addicted themselves.
Lorine Ogurkis adopted one of these babies from the foster care system.
“I got this beautiful call for this baby boy - healthy, eight pounds - but he’s heroin addicted. What does that mean? What does his future look like? And he said, 'Lorie, oh my God, that’s a death sentence drug for the mother, but it is not for that baby'. And that’s all I had to hear," Lorine says.
She’s the co-founder of Brandon’s Forever Home in Hazleton, an organization dedicated to finding homes for children in the system. Lorine and her husband are also one of those eighty-five homes in Luzerne County that takes in foster kids.
"Last week we got a call for ten different placements and they were all related to drugs. People don’t realize that, not only is it breaking our community, but it’s breaking the children, and tragically, the grandparents are stepping up to help. But a lot of times there’s a lot more children than even a grandparent can help," Lorine says.
She also says there’s a stigma around foster care children, many treat them like they’re bad kids or criminals, even though they didn’t have a choice ending up in the system.
“Not only does a child lose their biological home because of neglect or abuse, they’re losing their community, they’re losing their school, they’re losing everything that they know and wake up the next day into something totally foreign. It’s a disservice to our youth," says Lorine.
“It makes you feel like there’s something wrong with you and it makes you feel like just a social outcast. It makes you feel a lot of things, honestly," shares Katelyn.
Despite the tough childhood behind her, Katelyn is looking up the road ahead. She wants to be a nurse.
“I’m so grateful for everything that I have been given. Even though my childhood and past wasn’t the best, I still have my future to look forward to. And that’s all that matters to me," she says.