BATAVIA, Ohio -- For Fawn and Steve Kippenberg, it took losing their four children to the foster care system to open the couple’s eyes to the addiction they were battling.
"When they walked the kids away from me – that was enough,” said Steve Kippenberg, recalling the Sept. 2014 day his children were escorted away by Children's Protective Services workers in Clermont County.
At the time, the couple’s heroin use had become a daily way of life. Steve and Fawn had just been evicted from their home in Bethel and were living with their kids in a Red Roof Inn hotel room.
"That was our bottom," Steve Kippenberg said. “After they took the kids, we walked into a homeless shelter and we gave it up."
WATCH: Can you help? Learn more about what it takes to become a foster parent and how you can help local foster families.
At the shelter, the couple came across an ad in a local newspaper with details about Clermont’s Family Dependency Treatment Court. They went on to become the first graduates of the intensive program – getting their children back in the process.
"Addiction is something I’m going to have the rest of my life," Steve Kippenberg said. "I’ll never beat it, but I’m taking control of it.”
A family reunion like the Kippenberg's is a rarity in Ohio, where communities are battling unprecedented rates of heroin and prescription drug abuse. The children's homecoming bucks a disturbing trend unfolding as the heroin scourge rips apart tens of thousands of families. Record numbers of children are being removed from homes of drug-addicted parents.
Statewide, 70 percent of children under the age of one who were taken into custody in 2015 had parents who used opioids, including heroin, according to the Public Children Protective Services Association of Ohio, a Columbus-based nonprofit.
Officials say rural communities -- including Clermont County where the Kippenbergs live -- have been among the hardest hit. In Clermont County, more than half of all children placed into Children's Protective Services in 2016 had parents who were addicted to heroin or other drugs, according the nonprofit’s most recent survey of foster care agencies. That’s far above the state’s average of 28 percent, and neighboring Hamilton County’s average of 17 percent.
Heroin's impact on Ohio's foster care system
In a growing number of counties, more half of the children removed from their parents' care in 2016 was due to parental drug use, including opioids. Here's a look at the impact across Ohio, according to data from the Public Children Services Association of Ohio.
Many of these children, officials say, will never return to their homes.
"These children are lingering in foster care for longer than we’ve ever seen, largely because of the time it can take an addict to recover from opioids,” said Scott Britton, assistant director of Public Children Services Association of Ohio. “Some counties are reporting that adoptions are exceeding reunions for the first time.”
In Clermont County, only 30 percent of the children taken into custody in 2016 were reunited with their parents.
"The demand it’s having on our foster care system is significant,” said Timothy Dick, assistant director of Children’s Protective Services in Clermont County. “We don’t have enough foster parents, and we’re having to place children with foster parents that are two and three hours away. So not only do they experience the trauma of being removed from their parents, but they’re removed from their school and community.”
Compounding the problem: As more children enter the foster care system, costs are climbing, putting a major squeeze on child protective services agencies across Ohio’s 88 counties.
“Our agencies have already seen a steep decline in state funding since 2008, but the costs of finding foster care for these kids keeps increasing,” said Britton, noting that Ohio is last in the nation for its share in spending on child protective services.
“This epidemic is reverberating through our systems in so many complex ways," he said. "We’re very concerned that were going to be facing these challenges for the long haul," he said.
Want to learn more about foster parenting?
Clermont County Children's Protective Services is hosting an open house Feb. 27 at the Glen Este Church of Christ, 937 Cincinnati-Batavia Pike, Cincinnati, 45245. Local foster and adoptive parents will be on hand to talk about their experiences and answer any questions.
‘There is hope’
Without Clermont’s Family Dependency Treatment Court, the Kippenbergs say they're not sure where their family would be today.
“It kept us accountable,” Steve Kippenberg said. “There’s so much structure, and I need that. We had lost that balance.”
Launched in 2014, the yearlong court program is completely voluntary for participants. Participants must commit to a regular drug screening, a comprehensive drug recovery program and multiple weekly check-ins with the court.
It’s one of 12 courts like it across Ohio that is serving as a demonstration project by the U.S. Supreme Court. It is paid for by a federal grant.
The program – which is free to participants – also provides transportation and help with housing and basic services, said Angela Livesay, the program’s coordinator.
“Drug treatment is very hard, but most of the time people who come to us need more than drug treatment,” she said. “They need housing. They don’t have transportation, and they’ve burned a lot of bridges. We can help them fill in the gaps.”
Livesay said she remembers the call she received from Steve Kippenberg more than two years ago, inquiring about the program.
“From the get go, I knew they were really committed and they wanted to work really hard,” she said.
For those who follow the program’s strict, intensive rules and schedule, the reward is a quicker reunion with their children. Six months into the program, the Kippenbergs' children were able to move back in with their parents.
“It was great,” Steve Kippenberg said. “It felt whole. It felt complete.”
Since the program’s launch, nine other individuals also have completed the program. But not everyone who enters is successful.
“We have people who fail, for a number of reasons, and it’s heartbreaking,” Livesay said. “In my world, I want everyone to be able to go on to parent their children and live a really happy life, but unfortunately those are not the statistics any of us are working with in the addiction field.”
Since completing the program, the Kippenbergs volunteer regularly – meeting with program participants to encourage them along the way.
“Helping them helps me,” Steve Kippenberg said. “There is hope.”
More foster parents, funding needed
As results from family court programs like Clermont County’s are tracked, more funding could be made available federally to expand the program, officials said.
“It’s proven to be a great way to hold families' feet to the fire to get them into recovery more quickly and get their kids back,” Britton said. “But it’s just one of many solutions that are needed.”
More critical, Britton said: More state funding in Ohio to meet the growing demand placed on the 88 county-based Children Protective Service agencies.
For every dollar spent on Children Protective Services in Ohio, just 9 cents comes from the state, Dick said. That places Ohio last in the nation for its share of spending for such programs.
“It’s disappointing,” Dick said. “The state will acknowledge that we have an opioid epidemic, but they’re not taking the steps necessary to help us ensure that we can provide for and protect these children.”
As Ohio’s legislature considers the upcoming budget, Britton’s nonprofit has asked leaders to consider an additional $30 million over each of the next two years for foster care programs.
“Even if Ohio doubled that amount, we’d still be last in the nation for the state’s share in Child Protective Services costs,” Britton said.
In Clermont County, Dick said any additional funding would go to the agency’s most pressing need – recruiting more families to become foster parents.
“So many of our foster parents are now becoming adoptive parents,” he said. “We have more of a need for foster parents that we’ve ever had.”