Jason Kline doesn’t feel too far removed from the parents and the children he works with as a foster care specialist at Richland County Children Services.
“I grew up here. I live here,” Kline said. “You see a lot of these people and realize I’m only a few bad decisions from ending up in these situations.”
He’s responsible for maintaining the foster care system in Richland County, a system that has taken in double the number of children in recent years. A variety of reasons help explain the increase, but a rise in drug use in the county has contributed.
Of the 1,210 investigations initiated by Children Services from January through July, 333 involved some sort of substance abuse. More than 150 had some sort of opiate exposure, and just less than 100 had heroin exposure.
Resolving a substance-abuse related case and reuniting children with their parents can be particularly trying because the solutions are so complex and getting sober takes time.
Time isn’t something the Children Services agencies have much of, though.
“Drug abuse is chronic so the solution is time,” Kline said. “Often you need more time to demonstrate sobriety. You need to establish it. You can’t do heroin for five years and stop for a month and everything’s great. Your brain isn’t even wired in the way it’s supposed to be yet.”
Support is needed from many people, and once the case gets to Kline, it likely requires approval from a number of stakeholders.
“The case becomes court involved,” Kline said. “Then, at that point, not only do you have to convince our agency that you should be reunified with your children, you have to convince a magistrate or a judge and a court-appointed special advocate who’s involved in the case and all those other parties. So the standard can be pretty high at that point.”
That adds length to a case that’s already lengthy by nature, especially compared with issues such as unemployment or an eviction, which can be fixed with simpler methods.
And the clock is ticking. By law, the agency must seek a permanent solution once that custody extends past a year. When drugs are involved, sobriety needs to be maintained for some length of time, leaving little wiggle room for parents trying to buck a drug habit.
“Six months is not enough time to demonstrate sobriety,” Kline said. “If they fall behind in any way, they can never make up that time.”
The agency has 73 children in foster care and another 218 in kinship programs, where a child is in the custody of a relative or a close neighbor.
“These are your neighbors in every way,” Kline said. “You do take that home with you. Literally, because it's right next door.”
He works hard to keep his cases from following him out of the office.
“It’s easy to take a case home with you in a way that’s not always helpful,” he said, but he has found a way to get through that.
“As long as I feel like I give that person everything I’ve got, it doesn’t weigh on me,” he said.