Manatee and Sarasota Counties have seen overdose deaths from drugs like heroin, fentanyl and carfentanil spike in the past few years. At the same time, the number of children being removed from their homes and placed into the area’s foster care system has skyrocketed. There’s a connection between the increases.
When you step inside Elizabeth and Kate Dumbaugh's Sarasota home, you find a neat, elegant living room and don't hear much besides the quiet hum of the air conditioner. You wouldn't know six kids under the age of nine were living there, that is until you walk down the hall – past a bedroom door covered in colorful illustrations and “I love you Mommy" notes –and into the playroom, where a couple of toddlers are keeping busy.
There's a mini kitchen, a crib for a doll, a sprawling train set and what Brena Slater argues might be the largest Teddy Bear ever made.
Slater is Vice President of the Sarasota YMCA's Safe Children Coalition, which has overseen the foster care system in Florida's 12th Judicial Circuit which covers Manatee, Sarasota and De Soto Counties, for about 20 years. She says for most of that time, child welfare agents would bring in about 30 to 40 kids a month, and about half would go into foster care. But now:
"We've had a 120 percent increase in the last three years," Slater said.
The coalition knows substance abuse tops the list of reasons cited for child removal this year. Substance abuse can alcohol, marijuana or other drugs, but Slater says she's seen a clear connection with the rise in opioid use.
"Our area never had more than one or two parents die a year of overdose,” she said. “We have already had 23 parents die this year."
With all the statistics flying around about overdose rates and child removals, foster parent Elizabeth Dumbaugh says it can be easy for people to lose sight of the real problem.
"There's a little person who has no idea what's going on, and they're sort of in the middle of it all," she said.
In their two years taking care of foster kids, Kate Dumbaugh says several came to them because of opioid abuse at home, and some were more exposed to their parents’ addictions than others.
"And we noticed in their behaviors that there was definitely evidence of trauma,” she said. “We had a 3- and 4-year-old who, for the first several months, every time we were in the car and they saw a policeman they would freak out because they were trained to look for the 'Po-Po,' and they would alert us and they would duck."
But Dumbaugh stresses, those kids' parents turned their lives around and have since maintained a positive relationship with her and Elizabeth. Brena Slater says she wishes the system had more parents like the Dumbaughs, whom she dubs "foster moms extraordinaire."
But fostering is not for everybody, and even those interested might struggle to afford it. The average stipend is only about $420 a month per child. Slater says the circuit currently has about 400 kids in foster care and only 179 licensed foster homes.
"We've actually had to have a lot of our children either placed in group homes to keep the siblings together or outside of our circuit, and then that means you have the case manager driving to pick them up or foster parents driving to meet them, and that's not the environment we want for our children," she said.
Which is why sometimes, the coalition will waive the state requirement that limits foster homes to five children (biological and foster combined). Kate Dumbaugh says until just recently, she and Elizabeth were caring for seven kids at once.
"We never intended to do that, but there’s such a need and you hear the story, and we were like, ‘Sure, we'll put in bunk beds, we can make room,’" she said.
Dumbaugh says seeing kids come out of their shells and make developmental gains during their time in her and Elizabeth's care is what makes fostering so rewarding.
"I always get choked up when I talk about this, but I just feel like I'm on the front lines of love every day to see people who are just overcoming incredible odds," she said.
The Dumbaughs say they’re the lucky ones for getting the chance to help families heal.
As you you've just read, the situation isn't entirely bleak in Sarasota and Manatee Counties – there are some success stories. Click here to learn how one mom overcame her addiction to get her child back.
You can learn more about the challenges gripping the region's foster care system on Florida Matters.