AMERICUS, GA (WALB) - Drug abuse has led the state of Georgia to take thousands of children from their parents' homes over the past few years.
Georgia's Division of Family and Children Services does not have specific statistics on which drugs have caused each child to be put into foster care or the care of another guardian, but experts in South Georgia said the opioid epidemic has dramatically increased that number.
WALB News 10's Emileigh Forrester dug deeper to find out exactly how the opioid crisis has affected some of the smallest residents of the state.
Angelique Ludlam took over as the permanent Sumter County DFCS director in December 2017, following a year of serving as the interim director. Prior to that, Ludlam had worked with DFCS since 2003.
Ludlam said she believes the opioid epidemic has a direct effect on how many children in this region are taken into the state's care.
"They may think that this is happening in really big populated cities like the metro areas, like Atlanta," Ludlam explained. "But, it is happening in small communities."
The numbers prove it.
Georgia DFCS had 7,383 children in the state's care on March 22, 2010.
On March 22, 2018, eight years later, that number was 14,178, a 92 percent increase.
During the 2017 calendar year, GA DFCS reported that 41 percent of the children taken from their parents' homes were due at least partly to a parent's drug abuse.
Judge Lisa Jones presides over the Southwestern Judicial Circuit's juvenile court. It serves six counties including Lee, Macon, Sumter, Webster, Stewart and Schley.
Jones said she has also seen the increase in the number of children taken from their parents' care because of opioids.
"I don't know the exact percentage, but I know that we're overwhelmed, and I'm sure that the other circuits around here are too," Jones explained.
Both Ludlam and Jones said they believe awareness is the first step to stopping the opioid crisis and its effects on innocent children.
"This affects everyone," Jones said. "It's not just something you see in crime-ridden areas. This is a problem for all of us."
"Children have no regard of what adults are doing at times," said Ludlam. "Children are so innocent and they definitely need to be loved."
"You have a love for them," explained Kristy Albritton as she watched three of her current five foster children playing on a playground in Americus. "They're not your biological children, and you try to cheer the parents on, but, they're special."
For 15 years, the lives of Albritton and her husband Joseph have looked like that.
The five children they are fostering right now are just a fraction of the 48 children they've taken into their home over the past 15 years.
They started because Kristy's sister was struggling with a drug problem. They got trained to foster so that if her sister's three children got taken away from her, the couple could take care of them.
That never happened, but something special did.
"We feel like that's how God got us in it," explained Kristy. "By opening the door with her, it made us open to taking children in."
The Albrittons said that they believe drug problems have led around 40 of those 48 children into their home.
"It breaks your heart to know that there are some parents out there, that the drugs, it's not that they don't love their kids, their minds just don't care," said Joseph.
The couple said they believe faith will have to play a role in turning around the opioid crisis in our country.
"Unless we as a Christian body come together and support these parents, then it's not going to get any better," said Kristy.
According to Joseph, he and his wife take fostering as a simple chance to show kids how much they matter in this world, despite the choices of their parents.
"We like to let the kids know that you can care," said Joseph. "That you can be a productive adult, without doing all these drugs."
"That's the way that they'll end up being good people, to have people love them," Kristy said.
DFCS can petition for custody of a child, but many times, children come into the state's care on an emergency basis, following exigent circumstances.
That can include drug abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse and neglect.
The juvenile court must hold a preliminary hearing within 72 hours.
A judge has to decide if there's probable cause to believe the child is dependent.
If so, they stay in the state's custody.
The state then completes its investigation and has to file a formal petition for custody within five days.
The court has to have the next hearing within 10 days after that.
If foster care custody is granted then, it's not for any specific time frame, until further order of the court.
At that point, most often, the state develops a reunification plan with the child's parents, in hopes of one day putting the child back into the parents' care.
The plan identifies what the issues are (for instance, mental health, substance abuse, housing or income) and how to solve those problems.
After they get that plan developed, DFCS can come back within 30 days to finalize placement where it has placed the child, whether it be with a group home, a foster home or a relative.
Within 75 days of the removal of the child from the home, the judge reviews the case again to see what kind of progress is being made on the reunification plan.
"Our foster care cases are very intensive," explained Judge Jones. "They require a lot of court time."
Within nine months for children 7 years old and younger and 12 months for children older than 7, the state has to make a decision on what the best permanency option for the child is if the reunification plan is not going like it should.
GA DFCS starts investigating parents once they get a report from teachers, healthcare professionals and other mandated reporters.
DFCS says there are signs in children whose parents are abusing drugs. Some of those include showing up to school late or not going to school, not being properly dressed and talking about being hungry.
The children may also be left at home unsupervised for long periods of time.
For DFCS, drug abuse falls under a category of neglect by parents.
If you are interested in becoming a foster parent in Georgia, call 1 (877) 210-KIDS or visit fostergeorgia.com.
Ludlam said there are also opportunities to help current foster parents in your area with supplies, laundry and other things they may need. For information on how to get involved in that way, call your local DFCS county office.