Thursday, April 18, 2024

Foster parents rally for change in state law amid rising fentanyl crises

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OLYMPIA - As the prevalence of fentanyl rises, so too does the frequency of critical incidents related to parental substance abuse among foster children, often resulting in fatalities or near-fatalities. This alarming trend spurred foster mothers from across the state to gather and protest on the steps of the capitol.

They say a recently adopted state law makes it harder to remove children from homes for the evidence of substance abuse alone, and that is putting children in danger. They are backing a new law that would allow children to be removed from homes where the use of high-potency synthetic opioids like fentanyl are used.

“The bill's goal was to keep families together, said foster parent Tristan Fujita, referring to the current law. “But you are permanently severing the ability for a family to be together.”

The Keeping Families Together Act went into effect in July 2023. Known by its bill number 1227, It prevents the state from removing children from their families due to substance abuse alone. The law was adopted with strong bipartisan support and was vetted by foster parents on both sides of the aisle and the Department of Children and Family Services (DCYF).

“Before 1227, there have been child fatalities, and after 1227, there will be child fatalities,” Prime sponsor of the act, Lillian Ortiz-Self (D-Mukilteo), said. “And that is a shame on us.”

Fifteen foster parents and two foster kids came to the capitol steps in Olympia with their umbrellas, rain jackets, and colorful signs that said things like, “HB1227 belongs in the grave, not our kids,” and “It’s a grown-up’s job to keep kids safe.” They were always planning to testify against HB 1227, but felt after several tragedies, they needed to act now. 

According to Fujita, the recently adopted bill's goal was to reduce the removal of children in foster care by 25%, and it was successful in doing that. However, she said that the number of “critical incidents,” where there is a near fatality or fatality, has increased by 54%. 

According to DCYF’s 2023 report on the Keeping Families Together Act, since 2018, there has been a 35.6% decrease in the number of children in foster care. However, since 2020 they have reported an increase of high-risk cases, with 48 fentanyl related critical incidents in 2023, compared to 41 cases in 2022. 

Ortiz-Self said a disproportionate number of Black, brown, and Native American children are removed from homes statewide, and that’s another reason to be careful about removing children from families.

“The generational trauma that has been caused to families is irrevocable,” Ortiz-Self said. “We cannot continue to operate on a 100-year-old child welfare law that removes children without proving they are in danger.”

Fujita said race is not the issue. Individuals of any race or economic status can safely parent their children if they aren't using drugs. However, she emphasized that if parents are using drugs, they cannot safely care for their kids. 

Fujita noted that while Ortiz-Self argued the newly adopted law didn't alter everything, after attending all of the training sessions from DCYF, she said she believed it “changed everything.”

Fujita usually picks up children and babies from hospitals while their parents are getting help for substance abuse and has had the delight of returning them to their biological parents when they are ready. She says sometimes this can take days and other times years. 

“Imagine trying to parent a newborn that is not sleeping, when you do not have any healthy coping mechanisms – when your coping mechanism has been [drug] use,” Fujita said. 

Ortiz-Self argues that removing children from homes without proving imminent danger constitutes government overreach. She highlights that one-third of the children removed from home are returned within 30 days. That suggests there was insufficient danger initially. She said it is not the government's role to predict potentially dangerous situations.

Tracie Jefferson, a foster mom and key event organizer, opposes family separation but said families are not being kept together when kids are dying. 

Jefferson reports that in the past six months, DCYF documented 45 critical incidents, mostly linked to substance abuse, placing children under two, our most vulnerable, in high-risk situations without advocacy.

Stacy Hulse, a foster mom of 15 years and protestor, recently adopted a little girl after a two-and-a-half-year case. the girl, sporting a pink puffer coat, held a sign that read: "Kids first every step."

“Habitual illegal drug use plus parenting equals not safe for kids,” Hulse said. “It's like a math equation. You add those two things together, and it's a disaster waiting to happen.”

Ortiz-Self admits judicial ambiguity exists regarding the dangers of fentanyl, prompting the drafting of a new bill this legislative session to provide clarity on when children should be removed from families due to this drug.

SB 6109 clarifies child removal procedures for high-potency synthetic opioids, linking child abuse and neglect to parents using opioids to assess imminent physical harm. It mandates services for affected children, with a 90-day enactment period after passage. Having passed the Senate, it awaits a public hearing in the House.

The Washington State Journal is a non-profit news website funded by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation.

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