JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The opioid epidemic is forcing thousands of children into foster care because their addicted parents can no longer care for them.
One local resource takes great pride in the work it does "one day at a time" keeping families together through the crisis.
Gateway Community Services is a nonprofit that offers addiction treatment and rehabilitation through a 12-step program.
One young mother shared her story of how the program has been critical to her recovery after the pull of opioids nearly took her life.
“I wanted to try it, and from the first time I tried it, I was hooked," said Jennifer, who asked News4Jax not to use her last name.
Jennifer said she spent 17 years of her young life shooting up and prostituting.
"I was not even scared when people started dying from this epidemic. I wasn't scared for a while," Jennifer said. "I don't even know how that could ever have started because I don't come from a family like that at all."
Jennifer, who lives at Gateway Community Services, said she is sober now and has been for more than a year.
She came to Gateway a year ago last March when she was in a bad place. Her daughter was taken from her because of her addiction.
"I got highly depressed, and I was either going to let the drugs kill me or I needed to get help," Jennifer said. "I came in, and as soon as I got here, I found out I was pregnant with my son, so I knew it was even more of a reason to stay."
But she didn't get cleaned up just for herself, she did it for her 2-year-old daughter, Kylee.
"She was born addicted to cocaine," Jennifer said. "I was an intravenous user through my whole pregnancy, up until the very end."
Jennifer’s drug use during her pregnancy passed her addiction on to Kylee.
"(I) just couldn't stop," Jennifer said.
At first, Jennifer’s mother took on Kylee's care.
"From what she told me, she had the shakes for a few weeks, but it got better for her,” Jennifer said. “She has no problems now. She's smart as can be -- determined. You'd never know there was ever anything wrong."
Jennifer said one of her main concerns is watching out for Kylee if she ever decides that she wants to experiment with drugs because she’s more likely to develop an addiction.
"I'm hoping my experience in sharing that with her as she gets older, she won't ever want to go in that direction," Jennifer said.
Jennifer first became a mother 13 years ago when she gave birth to her son.
"I ... didn't ... my drugs were too important ... more important than him,” Jennifer said.
He now lives with his grandmother, who adopted him.
"He's in a good place,” Jennifer said, “a very good place."
Jennifer told News4Jax that things are different now that she's sober.
She said she's proud to say her son, C.J., was born a clean, healthy baby boy with no drugs in his system. Within weeks, she was reunified with her daughter.
"I have both my children, and I am so happy. It's working here,” Jennifer said. “It is definitely working.
Jennifer has been clean 17 months by working with the 12-step program, attending meetings held on the Gateway campus, and spending time developing bonds with the residents and treatment experts who work there.
But it’s the “kid factor,” as Jennifer put it, that's been a huge part of her success.
"It's a blessing because there aren't other places that let you do this -- that allow you to bring your children," Jennifer said.
Gateway's director of women’s services, Joann Porter Telfair, told News4Jax that the ability to include their clients' children is key to achieving sobriety and keeping families together.
"We'll take their children in once we feel that they're ready," Telfair said. "Once their children are here, the moms and the dads, they feel a lot better. It's really like a comforter for them when their children are here."
Telfair said they've been flooded with new clients due to the opioid epidemic.
"We're now getting ready to open at least 40 more rooms here for transitional housing,” Telfair said, "(because) the need is there.”
Like many moms at Gateway, Jennifer's children spend about six hours a day at the on-campus day care, then are able to be with their mother the rest of the time, bunked in a room with another mother and child.
"It's good because you're building a bond,” Telfair said. “It’s another mother. You need that love. You need that support. And so, we're going to love you until you love yourself."
Jennifer is now living off-campus in a Gateway House with six other mothers and three children. She said it's a busy house -- and joyful. She said she feels like she's truly getting to "spread her wings."
Eventually, she'll be able to move on, but said she's not quite there yet and knows she has a lifetime ahead of her. She’s taking her recovery "one day at a time."
One woman offers way out
The number of innocent children, like Kylee, born into drug-addicted families is staggering and raises questions on the effect opioids are having on the foster care system.
News4Jax was given the opportunity to go inside an area family's home as they join in the critical fight to rescue children from opioids.
Lauren, a mother and grandmother, has been a foster mom to 14 children. News4Jax is not using Laruen's last name to protect the children she cares for.
"There's always activity in this house," Lauren said. "Most children are pretty much going to stay with you six months to a year."
Lauren and her husband have opened their home to babies, toddlers, preschoolers and elementary-aged children for years.
"It's so crazy to go to the hospital and pick up a newborn,” Lauren said. “I mean, you don't have the weight gain or the stretch marks or anything."
Lauren said it’s gratifying to know she’s not only helping in the fight against opioids, she’s saving lives.
Because Lauren is a medical foster parent, all of the children she takes in have medical needs. Most of them are drug-addicted babies. It's a remarkable, full-time commitment, she said.
"(I) wake up, and we either have a doctor appointment, a therapy appointment or a visitation with mom and dad,” Lauren said. “I do all my own visitations."
Dealing with the parents can seem daunting, but Lauren said they know her as a caregiver.
“We usually form a bond, so they respect me, and I respect them," Lauren said.
Lauren’s work gives her a rare, front-row view of the opioid epidemic.
"It doesn't shock me. One of my mothers just recently overdosed. So she had to go through the whole Narcan (treatment), I understand what that is now, basically, a quick fix so they can live another day,” Lauren said. "You would be amazed the people in Jacksonville who do have drug problems. You would be absolutely amazed."
While Lauren agrees that the foster system is being squeezed by the opioid crisis, she's proud of the system's mission.
"They work very, very hard,” Lauren said. “They give parents lots of chances to get their children back. Most of my cases that I have, have reunifications, and the good thing is, I've developed relationships with parents that I still get (to see) the children."
Lauren said once the parents get their children back, they bring them to visit her some weekends.
The president of Family Support Services, Bob Miller, said foster parents like Lauren are vital to fighting the opioid epidemic.
"There are a lot of people out there who do this for a long period of time just to help children," Miller said.
Now, more than ever, good, stable homes are critically needed to fill in as parents for children until their moms and dads can get clean, or until they're adopted into a forever home.
According to the Department of Children and Families, 637 children statewide were removed from their homes in July for drug abuse in their homes. That's close to 48 percent of overall removals.
“We're certainly seeing more children from families who have substance issues," Miller said.
In DCF's Northeast region, including Jacksonville and surrounding counties, 91 children were removed from their homes in July. More than 51 percent of them were due to substance abuse issues, showing the Jacksonville area slightly higher than the state overall.
FSS, which covers Duval and Nassau counties, reported 33 removals in July.
DCF has just started tracking “opioids” in its own category, separate from “substance abuse” since July 1.
"All of the areas of the state are experiencing this increase in children that are being removed, primarily due to substance abuse," Miller said. "About 70 percent of the children that were removed from their homes have substance abuse as the primary or secondary reason."
Miller said about a third of children removed from their homes are reunited with their families, but that leaves two-thirds who are not.
"We work very hard to find additional forever families for them for adoption or other types of permanent guardianship or other ways that they can have a permanent family,” Miller said. “That permanent connection is what really allows them to begin to heal their trauma and start trusting again."
Miller said keeping children with their families is the ultimate goal.
"It costs about one-sixth as much to keep children in their homes as it does to remove them and then have to go through the judicial system, so it's better for everyone. It’s better on all fronts," Miller said.
There’s an ongoing campaign to encourage other stable families like Lauren's to open up their hearts and their homes to take in foster children and give them a better chance at life.
"I would say every one of my parents loves their children, and I never doubt how much they love their children," Lauren said. "But you have this demon inside of them that's more powerful than love can ever be."