Jennifer Mills drives down a long open road, flanked by fields of yellow grass, clouds overhanging.
As a child services caseworker, Mills says on most days she will drive from one end of Ross County to the other, filing paperwork at the local courthouse and to check in on her clients. Most are parents struggling to keep their kids, and kids adjusting to living without their parents.
In the three years since Mills started this job, just two of her cases have been not-drug related. Drug cases are difficult, she says, because you want so badly for the client to get clean.
“I think some of them really truly want to, but the drugs are stronger than their desire.”
In Ross County, almost 90 percent of kids placed in foster homes are there because their parents struggle with drug addiction—opiates, mostly.
Agencies across the state have seen a recent increase in the number cases. Meanwhile, Ohio's budget for Jobs and Family Services has shrunk over the last decade. That’s meant tougher circumstances for children and the caseworkers trying to protect them.
Stronger Drugs, Weaker Funding
In her relatively short time as a caseworker, Mills has seen ugly things brought on by addiction.
She recalls parents who stayed clean for years, only to relapse and die from an overdose. And there was the 4-year-old boy who showed Mills, during a scheduled visit, how his mom would tie a tourniquet on her arm and shoot up with heroin.
“In that particular case there were needles found in his bedroom,” she recalls.
The opioid epidemic touches countless lives in Ohio, the most vulnerable of those being children. But out of all 50 states, Ohio ranks dead last for the amount of state funding allocated to child protection services. In the last decade, agencies across the state have seen that funding drop by 17 percent, or about $93 million.
As opposed to a system overseen by the state, in Ohio each county maintains its own child services agency. Under that arrangement, wealthier urban areas can rely on funds from property taxes, while rural areas struggle.
Jody Walker is the director of the child services agency that operates in Ross, Vinton and Hocking County. Walker says that agencies like his rely heavily on tax levies - if they can get voters to approve, that is.
This year marks the fourth attempt by the agency to convince voters in Vinton County to support a tax levy. Otherwise, his agency relies on funds from the county commission.
“But again, it becomes a local cost,” Walker says. “The state, they do give us an allocation, but it doesn't go very far.”
Walker says he’s seeing the number of cases at his agency grow as the cost of care increases—particularly for kids with developmental delays or physical disabilities who require professional care. The tight budget means the agency can do little to invest in programs for prevention, like parenting classes or addiction counseling.
“At this point, we're just doing the day-to-day things and making sure kids are safe,” Walker says.
Few Happy Endings
In general, Mills says, drug cases tend to drag out longer. They require constant check-ins, drug screenings and legal work. And because many parents fail to overcome their addictions within the time frame allotted by the courts - usually just a year - they eventually lose custody of their kids.
In the last year, this agency of a few dozen workers has lost five caseworkers due to burnout.
Mills says her cases don't always have the happy ending she'd hoped for. That’s why she says you have to feel called to this kind of work.
“This is definitely not a job where you go home at night and not think about it,” she says.
Mills drives to the outskirts of Chillicothe to check in with one of her clients: a mother who recently lost custody of her six of kids due to drug addiction.
The young women, Caroline (we'll only use her first name because her case is ongoing), has been clean for eight months. Mills says she's shown considerable improvement.
Now Caroline's fighting to keep custody of her newborn baby, and prove she can overcome her past.
Mills sits with Caroline in her living room. Caroline cradles her infant son, his name freshly tattooed on her forearm.
Addiction, she says, can numb you from the pain and shame of losing your children.
“I love my kids, but did I keep messing up? Yes," Caroline says. "Did I keep going back, failing drug tests? Yes.”
Mills says her relationship with her clients is one of love and hate. For instance, when Caroline struggled with addiction, it was Mills who had to carry out court orders and place her kids in foster care.
But now that Caroline’s on the path to recovery, Mills is working to give her one last chance at motherhood.
“Jennifer and I, we've been rocky,” Caroline says. “This case is way better of course. [Mills has] been a lot more helpful and understanding this time.”
Before she leaves, Mills checks Caroline’s pantry to make sure there’s enough food for the baby. She asks Caroline to swab the inside of her mouth for a random drug screening.
Mills says Caroline can still become one of her success stories. For those, she says, she typically earns a "thank you."