SPECIAL REPORT: Kids abandoned by addicts are silent victims of the drug epidemic

SPECIAL REPORT: The silent victims of the drug epidemic, children abandoned by addicts

Innocence is naturally instilled in children, but it's delicate. One moment, one mistake, one relapse can shatter it.

For many kids in our area, instead of thinking about kid things, they're thinking about whether their parents will stay clean tonight.

For a year Joel and Jamie Irvin were foster parents to two little girls in Elkhart County.

"Full of energy, creative, kept me on my toes, strong-willed, very strong-willed children,” said Jamie Irvin.

The girls’ mom is addicted to methamphetamine and unable to take care of them.

"The mother had pretty serious drug problems,” said Joel Irvin.

The girls are a small part of a bigger picture. In the past four years, Indiana's Department of Child Services has had a significantly-increased caseload.

From September of 2014 until now, almost 10,000 more children entered the system. DCS says in 2013, 31 percent of all the DCS cases involved some type of addiction.

This year, that number has almost doubled. It's nearly 60 percent.

"The numbers are staggering, and those numbers – I can't stress enough – aren't just figures on a piece of paper. They're children,” said Deborah Domine, the Elkhart Circuit Court juvenile division magistrate. "It’s opioids, it’s methamphetamine, it's prescription drugs, and the numbers of people abusing those drugs are growing."

Before any of those children enter the foster care system, their parents find themselves in a courtroom. Domine oversees 1,400 case per year.

"It surprises me, as a mom, that the hold of addiction is stronger than a mother's love," exclaimed Domine. "Parents typically admit they have a problem. They want to get help, but often times they can't follow through because that addiction is so strong."

Children removed from their homes often go through places like The Villages, a family service agency that specializes in foster care. Leaders say watching a child hope their parents will get better is one of the hardest parts of the job.

"Let's say we have a 5-year-old child who is expecting mom to show up on Saturday afternoon at 2 p.m., and they're very excited, and mom might have relapsed the night before and so she is a no-show,” said Betsy Kuhn, the regional director of The Villages.

Jamie and Joel witnessed first-hand the toll addiction takes on these kids.

"They act out with different behaviors because they can't be with their parents," said Jamie.

The Irwins say the girls' mom tried to get better. She went to every visit and every therapy appointment.

"It's hard because we really wanted their mom to do well and she did do well," said Jamie, choking back tears.

Just a few months after the girls were reunited with their mom, that addiction itch came creeping back. Their mother relapsed again. The girls' grandma now has them.

"Now the girls are hurting," Jamie said. "Their grandma is taking care of them really well, the best she can. But they still don't have a mom and all they want is a mom. It's all they want. She does love them. It's just right now, she's in a dark place."

Domine says as a society, we have to do better when it comes to fighting addiction.

"The clock is ticking when you're dealing with children. They can't wait forever while parents fight an addiction," Domine said.

The girls are living without a vital piece of their puzzle -- just like so many other kids in our area who are abandoned by addicts. They're struggling to understand why their parents can't get clean for them.

Jamie and Joel are still in contact with the girls. They visit almost every month. They're expecting to get another foster child any day now.

Though, there's still a need for foster families in our area, and that need is constantly growing. If you'd like to learn about fostering or how to become a parent, click here.

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