In Need of Care

Parental substance abuse main reason Kansas children removed from their homes

More Kansas children are removed from their homes because of parental substance abuse than for any other reason.
More Kansas children are removed from their homes because of parental substance abuse than for any other reason. Wichita Eagle photo illustration

The 11-year-old girl begged her mom to stop using drugs.

She told her she didn’t want to end up in foster care like her cousins.

But her pleas didn’t work. Earlier this month, police put her and her younger sister in protective custody.

“The mother admitted she smokes methamphetamine through the day but not all day,” says a child-in-need-of-care petition, filed Aug. 14 in Sedgwick County District Court on behalf of the children. “Mother reported she smokes while the children are outside playing or in their room.”

It’s likely that no one grows up thinking that as a parent they’d allow their children to go to school without bathing for weeks or that they’d deal with conflict by smacking their child with a belt or that they’d forget to buy food or pay the utility bills.

But add in drugs and alcohol and you’ll find children living in homes littered with human and animal feces, going to school dirty dressed in dirty clothes and showing bruises from the night before.

More Kansas children are removed from their homes and placed in foster care because of concerns about parents’ drug and alcohol abuse than for any other primary reason, including physical abuse, neglect and sexual abuse, reports from the Kansas Department for Children and Families show.

“It’s safe to say that drugs and alcohol play a significant role” in child-in-need-of-care cases, said Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett.

Recently, investigators alleged that the Wichita foster parent of a 10-month-old girl who died in July after being left in a hot car was smoking marijuana and watching TV while temperatures inside the vehicle soared.

Nearly 750 children were removed from their homes because of concerns about their parents’ substance abuse in state fiscal year 2014, which ended June 30. In Sedgwick County, 93 children were ordered removed.

Those numbers have been growing the past five years.

Since February, The Eagle has been writing about child abuse and neglect as part of its “In Need of Care” series. Drugs and alcohol figure prominently in the petitions prosecutors file to protect children.

On Aug. 3, police whisked a baby girl away from a Wichita hospital.

The infant tested positive for methamphetamine at birth. Her mother tested positive for the drug, too.

She’d smoked meth the day she gave birth to the baby, she told a social worker.

She said she began using meth after she’d had her last baby, now 2.

Mental illness a parallel problem

Substance abuse is a factor in 60 to 80 percent of all child-in-need-of-care cases, estimates Ron Paschal, a Sedgwick County deputy district attorney in charge of the juvenile division.

On Thursday, his staff pulled 10 random cases from this month. In the first, one parent had a history of marijuana and meth use. In the second, alcohol, meth and marijuana were a problem for both parents. In the third, marijuana, alcohol and meth were factors for one or both parents. In the fourth, one parent struggled with marijuana and alcohol. In the fifth, one parent had a history of alcohol abuse. In the sixth, neither parent had a history of alcohol or drug use. In the seventh, there was a history of drug and alcohol use but no current use. In the eighth, both parents had a history of marijuana and meth. In the ninth, both parents had a history of marijuana and alcohol usage. In the 10th, the parents didn’t have any history of substance abuse, but the maternal grandparents did.

Mental illness often is a parallel problem in these cases.

People with mood or anxiety disorders are two to three times more likely to have a substance abuse problem, said Jason Scheck, director of outpatient services at Comcare, Sedgwick County’s mental health agency.

Alcohol or drugs, or both, often become a way for people to self-medicate, he said.

On Aug. 6, a Wichita Police Department officer took 4- and 2-year-old children into protective custody after the 21-year-old mother left them with a friend, saying she’d be back the next day. The mother didn’t come back.

The friend “stated that mother is probably using drugs,” according to the petition filed on the children’s behalf on Aug. 8. The friend “added that mother had been prostituting herself recently prior to being evicted” from her residence.

The friend told a social worker Aug. 7 that the mother had dropped off her children a week and two days before after asking if they could stay with her for the night.

But “the mother never showed up the next day and would not answer the telephone,” the petition says.

When the social worker talked to the mother later, the mother said she had been paying her friend $50 a day to take care of the children but “after three days she could not afford to pay her friend anymore and her friend started yelling at her to come get her children. Mother said she had been in contact with her friend and never ‘just left the children.’”

The mother said she was homeless and there was a lot going on in her life, the petition says.

‘DCF closed case’

When police arrived at the home of the 11-year-old girl who had asked her mother to stop doing drugs, they found meth, paraphernalia and a firearm, court documents say. Police removed a 7-year-old girl from the home as well.

The mother said she’d smoked meth the night before, the child-in-need-of-care petition says.

She had sores on her body, the petition says, from “picking” at her skin, a habit common among meth users.

In 2007, when the 7-year-old daughter was born, the mother tested positive for opiates and benzodiazepines while at the hospital.

“The DCF referred family to services but family refused. DCF closed case,” the petition says.

Two months later, the DCF received a report that there was a tray of marijuana and a marijuana pipe on the family’s living room table. The DCF did not assign the report to a social worker.

Six days after that, the DCF received a report that the children were without parental control and the mom was passed out. “DCF referred family to services, but family refused, DCF closed case,” the petition says.

The DCF cannot force parents to get treatment for substance abuse.

In 2009, the DCF received a report that the mother had taken her older daughter to an emergency room for a small skin lesion. Hospital staff suspected the mother was exploiting her daughter to get pain medication. The DCF did not assign the report to a social worker for further review.

In 2011, someone reported that the mother had picked up her children while she was high. The DCF closed the case.

In all, there were 10 previous intakes involving the family, records show.

The ‘totality’ of the situation

How the DCF responds to substance abuse cases depends on many factors, said Brian Dempsey, director of protection and prevention services for the agency.

“Every case is a case-by-case assessment. We gather as much info as we can,” he said.

The DCF looks at the “totality” of the child’s well-being, Dempsey said.

The DCF “makes a real concerted effort to work with those parents if they can without filing a child-in-need-of-care petition if they believe they can do so and preserve the child’s safety,” Paschal said.

The way such cases are handled differs by jurisdiction across the state, he said, because there are no clear-cut state laws about what to do in parental substance abuse cases.

For example, the DCF tried to remove 18-month-old Jayla Haag of El Dorado five months before she ended up in a hospital with fatal head injuries in March 2012. But a Butler County prosecutor thought the state lacked evidence, according to a time line the DCF provided to The Eagle earlier this year.

Jayla tested positive for meth when she was born and when she died, according to an autopsy and to a dismissed lawsuit filed against the DCF. The autopsy showed she also was suffering from malnutrition and was missing six teeth that had been forcibly detached from her lower gum.

The lawsuit, filed by the girl’s father, alleged that adults had been smoking meth in the small duplex where she lived around the time she suffered the fatal injuries. Her mother, Alyssa Haag, is in prison for involuntary manslaughter. Justin Edwards, 31, Alyssa Haag’s boyfriend at the time of Jayla’s death, is facing a first-degree murder charge.

Medical staff, under state law, must report babies who test positive for drugs at birth. A baby born positive to meth more than likely would result in a request for removal, Dempsey said.

“The addiction for meth is so strong and hard to break,” Dempsey said. “Meth doesn’t stay in your system as long as other drugs, so testing positive (indicates) recent use.”

For other types of drugs for which an infant tested positive, “we would look at the totality of the circumstances and gather information from the hospital as well. Is the mother bonding with the child? Does mom have visitors? What are they like in the hospital? Does she have a good support system?”

One common thread in cases involving newborns is that the mother and father haven’t prepared for the child. Often a social worker will note that the parents don’t have any supplies for the baby beyond what the hospital provided.

That’s something social workers also consider, Dempsey said.

“Have the parents prepared a place in their home for their child? How much prenatal care did the mother receive?” he said.

Children born with drugs in their system face short-term and long-term problems, Dempsey said, starting with withdrawal.

Children whose parents abuse drugs or alcohol are more likely to struggle with substance abuse themselves.

“Some adolescents mimic behaviors they see. Some also witness or are victims of violence, so in those cases substance use may be a coping mechanism for a traumatic event,” Scheck said.

Help is available

Addiction is a lifelong disease, Dempsey noted.

Services are available for parents struggling with substance abuse. They often go hand-in-hand with mental health counseling.

“I think it’s critical that a woman who is pregnant or a parent who has a substance use problem reach out for help. And that they know that help is available,” said Comcare’s Scheck.

Prosecutors request drug testing and treatment in child-in-need-of-care cases where substance abuse is a problem.

“The office is a real proactive about that,” Paschal said.

He said one-on-one treatment and programs such as Healthy Babies, a free education program for pregnant women and moms who have recently given birth, do work.

But they’re expensive to offer, he said.

“The tough things about these cases is in a perfect world, we would have the funds and the treatment resources, …” Paschal said. “Where do you put the Band-Aid on the thing, or how big is your Band-Aid able to be?”

Reach Deb Gruver at 316-268-6400 or Follow her on Twitter: @SGCountyDeb.

By the numbers

Substance abuse by parents is the No. 1 reason Kansas children are removed from their homes, according to reports from the Kansas Department for Children and Families.

Here are numbers from the 2014 fiscal year, which ended in June:

3,805 children removed from their homes statewide

747 removed for the primary reason of parental substance abuse

475 children removed from their homes in Sedgwick County

93 removed in Sedgwick County for the primary reason of parental substance abuse

Source: Kansas Department for Children and Families

Need help? Know someone who needs help?

Comcare, Sedgwick County’s mental health agency, offers addiction treatment services and may be reached at 316-660-7550.

For mental health services at Comcare, call 316-660-7540.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call 316-660-7500.

Comcare offers Beating the Blues, an online cognitive behavior intervention for mild to moderate depression and anxiety, at no cost to Sedgwick County residents. It’s also available to residents of Butler and Sumner counties as part of a regional agreement. More info is available at

Related stories from Wichita Eagle