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Tennessee Parents Lose Kids as Opioid Crisis Rages On

Knoxville County Juvenile Court Judge Tim Irwin presides over more terminations of parental rights cases than any other judge in Tennessee.

Every week, he makes decisions on whether a parent gets another chance to keep their children — or lose them forever.

His court docket in recent years has become so crowded with parents addicted to painkillers, his decisions have become quicker and surer.

“Those cases used to take several hours in court,” he said. “Now they take a matter of minutes. I just look at the medical records and the case goes pretty quickly.

“It’s a terrible thing that we do here on a weekly basis,” Irwin said. “But you can’t trust active opiate addicts to be parents. They’ll put their addiction first every time. You hate to sever the bond between a mother and child, but it doesn’t end there because a lot of time the mother has another child and you have to go through it all over again. It’s the saddest thing I do.”

The number of parents permanently losing their rights to a child has grown significantly in Tennessee, a Tennessean analysis found.

Between 2010 and 2014 (the most recent year data is available), there was a 51 percent increase in the number of parents who have had their relationship legally and permanently severed from a child.

In the same time period, the number of children in Tennessee waiting to be adopted increased by 56 percent.

Related: Nashville startup aims to protect babies from opioid abuse

The Department of Children’s Services, which initiates most actions to terminate a parent’s legal rights, says it is unclear what accounts for the increase and many factors may be behind those outcomes.

But judges, temporary guardians appointed to defend the children's rights, lawyers who work for DCS to terminate parental rights and lawyers who defend parents against those actions all said the state’s opioid addiction epidemic is a key driver.

Opioid epidemic sweeps Tennessee

Opioid overdoses claimed the lives of 1,451 Tennesseans last year. The state has the second-highest rate of opioid prescriptions in the nation. Opioid abuse, unlike prior waves of drug abuse epidemics such as crack and methamphetamines, often inflicts entire families, making it impossible to place children with other relatives such as a grandparent or uncle or aunt because they are often addicted, too. There are limited treatment options available, especially for poor and uninsured parents.

The result has been a strain on local courts, DCS and the Tennessee Court of Appeals, which has seen its caseload of appeals of parental terminations nearly double, from 76 appeals in 2010 to 135 thus far this year.

It also is a burden on taxpayers because parents who cannot afford legal counsel are appointed attorneys by the estate. Appointed attorneys last year cost taxpayers more than $500,000.

Legal advocates for parents say DCS and the courts are now shifting in an overreactive mode, penalizing parents who have had addictions but are working toward overcoming them and taking more punitive measures in the past for parents who are addicted to other drugs.

“Once the judges hear a parent failed a drug test for methamphetamines or opioids, dependency and neglect findings are pretty automatic,” said Wilson Marble, a Cleveland, Tenn.-based lawyer.

Dependent and neglected is the legal term for a child who has been neglected by a parent or guardian, and a finding a child meets that definition is regularly cited by judges in terminating parental rights.

Marble represented a mother in Bradley County identified only as April L.T. in court documents in order to protect the identity of her three children. The mother’s children were taken into custody after police found two baggies of Xanax in a jewelry box in her home. Xanax is in a different class of drugs than opioids but can be abused. She was charged with possession with intent to distribute, and her children were placed in foster care.

The reason she lost her rights to her children, however, was not the original drug charge. It was a series of steps required by DCS that she did not fully complete, including failing to keep DCS informed of her change in phone numbers, her change in employment and change in residence in a timely matter. She also had been arrested for driving on a suspended license. At the time of her termination trial she was jailed for failing to pay fines imposed in 2014 for the possession of Xanax. She did not fail any drug tests.

“My experience is the department pours in everything but the kitchen sink in requirements,” Marble said. “They maybe have 20 requirements. A lot of them might be good ideas, but they don’t have anything to do with why the kids were removed.”

The mother lost her appeal of her termination of parental rights earlier this month.

'Losing your child ... nowhere near hitting bottom for addicts'

Other attorneys tasked with representing parents accused of prescription pain abuse take a dimmer view.

Jennifer Bjornstad, a Knoxville-area attorney often appointed to represent parents in termination cases, said she has seen parents addicted to opioids fail over and over in their efforts to recover from their addictions — even when faced with losing their children.

“Apparently losing your child to foster care is nowhere near hitting bottom for addicts,” Bjornstad said.

Bjornstad said she spends a lot of time helping parents get clean only to have them fail and lose their children.

On the day she talked to a reporter, she had just learned that a mother she represented would not be able to make a meeting with DCS the next day to go over further preconditions for getting her children back.

The mother of four had just been found dead in her shower from an overdose.

The experience as a parents’ legal advocate in a battle with DCS to get their children returned has made Bjornstad cynical at times.

“I tell parents I’m never going to work harder than you,” Bjornstad said. “If they have no interest in finding treatment or getting help, I don’t work like crazy. But if they are really trying, I will do everything I can to help them.”

DCS faces increases in termination proceedings

Susan Kovac, regional general counsel for DCS and a supervising attorney for more than 25 years, said she has seen a sharp rise in the number of opioid-addicted parents in the past five to seven years.

The cases lead more often to severing parents’ rights than other types of cases, such as abuse and neglect, she said.

“When we have a child who comes into foster care because of physical or sexual abuse, we generally can find a family who can take that child,” Kovac said. “But in the opioid story, the expectation is not there because our experience is that if you get Mom or Dad using, grandparents are using and the siblings are using. It’s hard to find a family.”

It’s also harder to get parents who want treatment. Part of DCS’ job before terminating parental rights is to provide services to the family to make them better parents or improve living conditions. Those include things like parenting classes, providing transportation to counseling or providing poor families with cribs and formula.

But with opioid addiction, the availability of resources is bare.

“We absolutely don’t have the resources,” Kovac said. “If you don’t have insurance and you don’t have TennCare, how do you get treatment? If you have a parent who wants to get into treatment, the response is that you can get on a waiting list but it might be four to five months before you can get into detox. Then there’s another month before you can get on a waiting list for outpatient treatment.”

Then there is the problem of the disease itself. “You’re also talking about addicts, so being ready to engage in treatment.”

Kovac’s office in East Tennessee has had to add staff to cope with the increase in termination cases. In 2000, the office had two full-time and one part-time attorney. Today it has seven full-time attorneys.

“They’re sad,” she said. “It makes me frustrated and angry. In all the time I’ve worked with the department, the families we are seeing now are more and more dysfunctional. The children are more and more damaged, so the chances they are going to be successful in being reunited are less than they were 20 years ago."

In West Tennessee, one adoptive mother of two children born to the same opioid-addicted mother said she sees the devastation firsthand on children caught up in the cycle of addiction.

The woman, who did not want to be named to protect her children’s privacy, said she adopted her first child as a newborn from a mother addicted to Loritab and Percocet at birth.

She fostered a second child from the woman — who has had 12 or 13 babies — three years later. The second child the woman fostered was allowed to return home to the birth mother for three months but is now in foster care.

“Our son is so weak, and he screams bloody murder at times,” said the woman, who is in the midst of termination proceedings against the child’s mother to be able to adopt him as her own.

She has gotten to know the birth mother through visits with the child but has no faith she will ever be able to battle her addiction to be a good mother.

“That’s the thing,” she said. “As much as we love him, I’ve known her for two years now and I love her, too. I think if she ever got it together that would be great — incredibly sad for us but great. But I don’t think that will ever happen. And this child deserves so much more.”

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