In 2015, child welfare agencies around Ohio began noticing a disturbing trend. The number of kids needing care as a result of opioid addiction in their families was rising sharply.
“The Public Children Services Association of Ohio (PCSAO) decided to take a closer look at what was happening,” says Ohio START director Fawn Gadel. “They sent out surveys to all 88 counties in the state.” And the results were eye-opening.
It discovered 50 percent of kids were coming into the child welfare system because of substance misuse; 28 percent specifically the result of opioid-related misuse. The numbers have only increased since then. Some counties report 80 to 100 percent rates.
“PCSAO took those survey results to state leaders, legislators, and pretty much anyone who would listen,” Gadel says. “People weren’t thinking of kids as victims of the opioid crisis. But they are suffering as a result of it.”
The Ohio Attorney General’s Office partnered with PCSAO and Casey Family Programs to look at what was being done in neighboring Kentucky. They found a model that would work well in the Buckeye State. The Attorney General’s Office secured federal grant funding and launched Ohio START (Sobriety, Treatment, and Reducing Trauma) in the spring of 2017.
This intervention program provides specialized victim services, such as intensive trauma counseling, to children who’ve suffered victimization because of their parents’ substance misuse. It also assists parents of children referred to the program with their path to recovery from addiction.
The program provides timely access to treatment and recovery services. Early identification of families with substance use disorders usually happens in less than 14 days. Once in the program, clients are referred to behavioral health partners within a day or two for an assessment and a recovery plan.
The family is connected to a peer mentor, someone with at least two or three years experience in recovery and who also has experience with the child welfare system (such as a parent or foster child) to walk them through the process. Family/team meetings are held within two days, allowing families to provide input to their recovery plan. That can lead to increased parental visits (more than what’s typical in such cases). All parents and kids are screened for trauma and referred to mental health treatment, if necessary.
Since its launch in 2017, the program has steadily grown with the continued support of the state of Ohio. In 2019, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine worked closely with the Ohio Legislature, Ohio Department of Job and Family Services and Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services to secure a significant investment of state dollars in the program which will allows the program to expand to an additional 30 counties. The program currently operates in 32 counties, including 17 in southern Ohio which is part of Appalachia, the least prosperous part of the state. Fourteen additional counties have been chosen to join cohort 3 which will begin to serve families in the spring. The program plans to add another cohort of counties in the fall of 2020. As of the end of July 2019, 508 children have been served.
Gadel points out the many benefits Ohio START is producing. “Families are reunified more often, they’re staying in their own home more often, and the culture of local child welfare agencies is changing.”
In just two years, Ohio START is off to a very strong start, indeed.
Ohio START was a featured award winner in the 2019 Innovation Now project of the Addiction Policy Forum.