Last year in Trumbull County, Ohio, an elderly woman was arraigned in criminal court for a theft she had allegedly committed the night before. She had been arrested and was unable to post the $1,000 bond prior to arraignment before the criminal court judge the next morning. The complaint alleged a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by Ohio law of a maximum fine of up to $1,000 and up to six months in the county jail. The woman waived her rights, including her right to counsel, and advised the judge she was prepared to enter a plea admitting her guilt.
Standing before the bench, the woman was extremely nervous and upset as she entered a guilty plea. The judge read into the record the statement of facts prepared by the arresting officer. She had taken several staple items of food from the store. As she walked out of the store without paying, she was confronted in the parking lot, where police had responded. All of the items stolen were recovered.
The judge was perplexed. This woman had no prior criminal or traffic offenses. Why had this elderly woman stolen such basic food items? It turns out that the woman’s daughter was an opioid addict and had left her to care for her three very young grandchildren—two days before the incident. The woman’s income, however, consisted of a meager monthly Social Security check that left her with no additional money to feed three hungry children. Her only option, she felt, was to take the food so she could feed her grandchildren.
While the grandmother’s story has a happy ending—the charge was dismissed, and she was enrolled in a program through the county’s Probate Court, where she was connected with social service agencies that provided food and medical assistance for her grandchildren—her story is not unique.
Like so many counties in Ohio and throughout the United States, Trumbull County is fighting against the harsh realities of the devastating opioid crisis. The heroin epidemic has ravaged Ohio and surrounding states in the past decade, with the opioid analog fentanyl contributing significantly to the magnitude of the problem. While the availability of prescription opioids has dramatically declined during this period, the availability of illicitly produced fentanyl has increased rapidly and is much more deadly than most other opioids. The Ohio Department of Health reported 2,531 unintentional drug overdose deaths in 2014,1 compared to the astonishing 4,854 deaths in 2017.2
What these staggering death tolls do not reflect are the countless numbers of others who are living with addiction, nor do they account for the thousands of family members and friends left to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives. The parents and children of addicts are the ones experiencing the most collateral damage in Ohio. As if it were not bad enough to bury a child, parents of addicts must assume responsibility for caring for their now-orphaned grandchildren.
Kinship care in Ohio is broadly interpreted by the Ohio Department of Job & Family Services as “a temporary or permanent arrangement in which a relative or any non-relative adult who has a long-standing relationship or bond with the child and/or family, has taken over the full-time, substitute care of a child whose parents are unable or unwilling to do so. Kinship care includes those relationships established through an informal arrangement, legal custody or guardianship order, a relative foster care placement or kinship adoption. Regardless of the type of kinship care arrangement, the kinship caregivers’ voluntary commitment to devote their lives to the children in their care is a courageous, life-changing decision.”3
Courts and child welfare agencies favor placing children with relatives, especially grandparents, when available, in an effort to provide familial and community continuity.4 In Ohio in 2014, approximately 124,000 (5 percent) of children were living with a relative with no parent present and almost 230,000 (8.6 percent) of children under age 18 were living in homes where the householders are grandparents or other relatives.5 One may merely look at the latest 2017 statistics to see a 90 percent increase in just three short years of unintentional drug overdose deaths to conclude that there are significantly more children in Ohio living with grandparents today than in 2014.
Fortunately, the Trumbull County grandmother was one of the lucky ones; she had not lost her daughter to opioids. She was, however, left to unexpectedly care for her three grandchildren. Like so many in her situation, the responsibilities for displaced children left orphaned from opioid addiction fall on the shoulders of grandparents.
Kinship caregivers, especially elderly grandparents, face challenges when assuming parental responsibilities. The most common difficulty is their limited financial resources. Many elderly grandparents are living on fixed incomes that barely meet their own needs, leaving no room for additional bodies to feed and clothe. Many suffer from health issues that make them unable to actively participate in a full-time parenting role. Others are dealing with mental health and substance use disorders of their own. When it becomes evident that placement with a relative is not a viable option, local child welfare agencies become actively engaged and these children become court involved.
In the absence of suitable kinship caregivers, child welfare agencies turn to foster care resources when available. The influx of deaths and addicted parents has quickly exhausted what resources were available, as most counties struggle to find sufficient numbers of families willing to assume this responsibility. Even when foster placement can be made, children often are forced to change schools, which can be devastating for a child having to develop a relationship with new foster parents, as well as new social relationships with peers in school.
Ohio also is seeing parents leave their children in the care of a relative without involving the court or child welfare agencies. Again, this responsibility falls particularly hard on grandparents who become the de facto parent for the children, which is a much different relationship than a traditional grandparent–child relationship.
In a recent focus group of grandparents who had informal custody of grandchildren, a grandmother shared that her daughter appeared without warning and took the child to another county so she could collect welfare benefits payable for the child’s care. Unfortunately, those monies were used to support the mother’s drug habit and not to feed and care for the child.
Another grandmother shared that her drug-addicted daughter unexpectedly left her twin nine-year-old granddaughters with her. This grandmother’s monthly income was approximately $900 in Social Security benefits. She used the money to pay rent and utilities for her two-bedroom home. Her adult son also lived with her, slept on the living room sofa, and watched the only television set in the house. The twins were relegated to a bedroom and were unable to have any sort of entertainment due to their uncle’s occupation of the living room and his annoyance with their presence. One granddaughter wanted to take horseback riding lessons; the other wanted to play soccer. The grandmother shared with the group she could not afford these luxuries and she was unaware of any benefits that were available to families with these hardships. Upon learning of this need, the Ohio Network of Children’s Advocacy Centers6 offered assistance by connecting these non–court involved grandparents to social services available to meet the best interest needs of the children.
As critically inadequate as the situations for foster and kinship care placements are in many places in Ohio, children who are court involved are in a much better position to receive the services they need than those who are placed in kinship care informally. The uncertainty of the absent parent reappearing to assume responsibility in these situations with no safeguards to ensure they are equipped to do so is not only unsettling, but it is often dangerous.
Like most societal issues, there is no one silver bullet that solves this problem. Many soldiers are needed to win the war Ohioans are battling against drugs and the effects that they are having on families. The Supreme Court of Ohio has responded to its call to duty with a multipronged approach to this issue by providing education to judicial officers and guardians ad litem, holding focus groups and roundtable discussions, and collaborating with state and national partners, all of which are working to determine the best interests of the children left behind.
The Supreme Court of Ohio Judicial College provides continuing legal education to judicial officers based on well- defined curricula for each jurisdiction. It goes without saying, the superior guardian and ultimate decision-maker for the best interest of the child is the juvenile court judge.7 The Judicial College undertook a significant curriculum development project for these judges to ensure that among the minimum 40 hours of continuing judicial education they are required to receive during each biennium are topics that address this responsibility.
Kinship placement is also part of the juvenile judges’ curricula and, as such, the Judicial College has conducted educational sessions aimed at informing judges of resources available for kinship providers; assisting them in fostering collaborative relationships with local child welfare agencies; and identifying local programs established by courts in other counties aimed at assisting with kinship caregiver placements.
Determining best interests of children is a tremendous responsibility for judges. Juvenile courts appoint guardians ad litem (GALs) to assist judges in determining the best interest of a child in abuse, neglect, and dependency cases. These trained professionals, oftentimes attorneys, social workers, or psychologists, represent children in these cases and provide recommendations to the judge as to custody and visitation arrangements.8
The Supreme Court of Ohio requires each GAL to complete specific education requirements set forth in the Supreme Court of Ohio Rule of Superintendence 48 to ensure that these professionals are adequately prepared and trained as they carry out their responsibilities.9 This rule mandates each GAL to fulfill at a minimum a six-hour preservice course before their first case assignment, followed by a three-hour continuing education course each year.10 Many courts in Ohio are served by Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteers. CASA volunteers are governed by a separate entity that has its own education requirements, but also fulfill the Supreme Court of Ohio’s training requirements allowing those persons to serve in the role of guardian ad litem.
Because GALs and CASAs assist with placement determinations, it is no surprise that their education programs address who qualifies as suitable guardians when parents are deceased or incapable of caring for their children. They are trained in identifying the warning signs of trauma, sexual abuse, domestic abuse, and substance use disorder. Whether these red flags are present in the child, the parent, or the potential caregiver, GALs are able to relay these concerns to the juvenile judge who ultimately makes the decision on where to place the child.
Ohio also has more than 240 certified therapeutic court dockets (called Specialized Dockets in Ohio) to deal with drug, alcohol, mental health, and family dependency, such as juvenile court–involved children whose parents suffer from addiction where the children are alleged to be abused, neglected, or dependent children.11 While not every court has the resources to have a specialized docket, all courts are facing the burden of assisting families in crisis. Ohio embraces the theory of therapeutic dockets courts with so much vigor that it encourages all courts to put into practice many of the components required for certification in their nontherapeutic dockets.
The Trumbull County judge is a criminal court judge with no specialized docket in his court, but his awareness of the guiding principles of a specialized docket averted a tragic consequence for a desperate grandmother. These are the outcomes of judicial education for all judges in Ohio.
The Supreme Court of Ohio also conducts roundtable discussions with juvenile judicial officers and focus groups. These forums provided opportunities to exchange ideas and offer recommended practices around the state. From these conversations, resources have been developed such as bench cards and tool kits addressing the challenges identified by these groups.12 They also have brought together child welfare agencies, social service agencies, as well as court partners to better inform each other of what assistance is available for kinship caregivers and displaced children. These idea-sharing forums are invaluable to those attending because they leave with concrete solutions to share with those individuals they are serving.
The Supreme Court of Ohio has a strong partnership with the Ohio Department of Job & Family Services (ODJFS), which also is working tirelessly to address the needs of families affected by the opioid crisis. The court and ODJFS meet regularly to discuss ways in which to leverage resources between the two agencies and to get information to the local courts about statewide programs available for families.
ODJFS offers the Kinship Permanency Incentive Program, which provides limited financial assistance for kinship caregivers who have legal custody or a guardianship over a minor relative. It is also the recipient of a two-year $15 million annual allocation from the Ohio General Assembly specifically earmarked for kinship caregivers to ease financial burdens and childcare costs. ODJFS was additionally tasked with ensuring that each county has a local kinship navigator whose role is to connect families with resources and benefits available to them at the state and local levels.
While courts and child welfare agencies are making strides, the problem is far from resolved. Ohio is still experiencing a shortage in suitable placements, as stories of children falling through the cracks continue to be reported. Meeting the best interest needs of children whose parents are gone or cannot adequately care for them is a challenge. Judges, court staff, and social services agencies, our schools, and organizations in our communities must join forces to ensure that these children are not lost in the mire of the chaos around them. Ohio is continually working to bring more resources to bear on this problem both financially and through education for the caregivers. We have not solved the problem, but being aware of the magnitude and focusing on it are priorities.
While the education judges had in law school was not rooted in social service or social science, the harsh reality is that the overwhelming impact of drug addiction in Ohio has taken them far deeper into social work than they ever dreamed possible. It is incumbent on all judges to do what is in the best interests of children because depending on the circumstances, the results can be catastrophic. Just ask a 70-year-old grandmother from Trumbull County who thought her only option was to steal food so that her grandchildren could eat. n
1. Ohio Dep’t of Health, 2014 Ohio Drug Overdose Data: General Findings, https://www.odh.ohio.gov/-/media/ODH/ASSETS/Files/health/injury-prevention/2015-Overdose-Data/2014_Ohio-Overdose-Report--PDO-REPORT---5_20_2016.pdf?la=en.
2. News Release, Ohio Dep’t of Health, Annual Drug Overdose Report Shows Eight-Year Low in Prescription Opioid Deaths and Four-Year Low in Heroin Deaths in Ohio (Sept. 27, 2018), https://www.odh.ohio.gov/-/media/ODH/ASSETS/Files/news/2018/ODH-News-Release----2017-Ohio-Drug-Overdose-Report.pdf?la=en.
4. “Kinship care represents the most desirable out-of-home placement option for children who cannot live with their parents. It offers the greatest level of stability by allowing children to maintain their sense of belonging and enhances their ability to identify with their family’s culture and traditions.” Id.
7. Juvenile judges are statutorily required to do what is in the “best interest” of children. Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § 2151.42, Best interests of child—order granting legal custody.
8. Id. § 2151.281, Guardian ad litem.
9. Ohio Sup. Ct. R. Superintendence for the Cts. 48(E).
10. Proposed changes to Rule of Superintendence for the Courts of Ohio 48 under review by the Supreme Court of Ohio would double the number of initial education and continuing education hours required of GALs.
11. Of these, 30 are certified family dependency dockets.
12. Supreme Court of Ohio, Caregiver Notice and Right to Be Heard Toolkit (July 2017), http://www.sconet.state.oh.us/JCS/CFC/resources/caregiverNotice/caregiver.pdf.