As West Virginia struggles with foster care crisis, families step up

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The children seemed to appear suddenly, all five in the living room, their tiny hands grasping plastic bags filled with the few possessions they had.

“We were extremely nervous,” Louisa Snuffer said. “They were extremely nervous. It was just a big pile of nerves.”

It was 2012, a week before Christmas. For years, Louisa and her wife, Nikki, who works as a member of the U.S. Air Force security force, had hoped to build a family together. That hope led to a decision to foster children and perhaps, one day, to adopt. In West Virginia, where the opioid crisis had started to push an increasing number of children into the foster care system, the need for foster parents was growing.

At the time, they didn’t know how much that need would change their lives — how the children, shy and uneasy, standing in their home that evening, would end up becoming the planets around which their lives revolved.

Nikki Snuffer, 35, hugs her daughter Harlow, 6 in Charleston. Snuffer and her wife Louisa adopted Harlow and seven other children impacted by the opioid epidemic. With slightly less than 4,000 licensed foster families, state officials are desperate to recruit families like the Snuffers.Hannah Rappleye / NBC News

“We got our family from fostering,” Nikki Snuffer said.

West Virginia officials are desperate to recruit more foster families like the Snuffers. Today, more than 7,000 children in West Virginia are in state care, a 71 percent increase over the past decade. Experts say this is due in large part to the opioid crisis, as more children are being removed from their homes because of parental substance abuse and neglect.

“The kids are the ones who are really suffering,” said Tina Williams, a social worker with the Children’s Home Society of West Virginia, a nonprofit that contracts with the state to place, shelter and facilitate the adoption of foster children. “It’s putting them in foster care. It’s putting them in grandma’s house.”

‘Do you have a home that would take all three?’

On a recent morning, Juliet Lloyd worked the phones at the Children’s Home Society in Charleston.

It was 10 a.m. Of the 106 emergency beds run by the nonprofit across the state, only two were open.

Just 15 minutes later, those last two beds were filled.

“It’s just kind of like this mental switch of, ‘OK, we’re full, but we’re not stopping,'” Lloyd said. “‘We’re not going to go home.’ Like, what can we do to keep working and keep getting these kids placed?”

West Virginia officials are struggling to manage the crisis. A federal lawsuit, filed in October by a local law firm and two nonprofit advocacy groups, charges that the state has failed to protect foster children for years. West Virginia has the highest rate of child removals in the country, according to the state’s Department of Health and Human Resources. More than 63 percent of the children entering state care are age 10 and younger. Eighty-three percent of open child abuse and neglect cases involve drugs.

For those on the front lines, finding safe harbor for children is a daily battle. When there are no options left, it’s not uncommon for children to stay days in government offices and hotels.

“It’s the reality,” Williams said. “We need facilities. We need foster homes.”

Today, there are fewer than 4,000 licensed foster homes in West Virginia. That’s not enough to fill the gap, said Rachel Kinder, a program director at Mission West Virginia, a nonprofit that specializes in recruiting foster and adoptive families.

Kinder said that while she has seen the number of children in care surge since she began working in the field a decade ago, the number of families seeking to foster has not kept pace.

“The crisis has strained the system significantly,” she said. “Five years ago, my agency was happy to talk to 400 families who were considering being foster parents. Now, we talk to about 2,000 a year, and it’s never enough.”

Back at the office of the Children’s Home Society, permanency facilitator Kellie May was trying to find a new foster home for a sibling group of three boys under the age of 6. Two of the boys had been diagnosed with autism.

“They were originally removed due to substance abuse,” she said, pausing for a beat as she listened to her colleague on the other end of the phone line. “The worker wants to keep them together, though. Do you have a home that would take all three of them?”

It was just one of the cases that May had to focus on that day.

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Over the previous 24 hours, the agency had received several referrals, including one involving a 7-year-old girl. After her parents overdosed, May said, the little girl walked barefoot through the snow to a gas station and asked for help. A second case involved three siblings under the age of 11 who were removed from their home a second time because of their parents’ substance abuse.

Because those siblings were not all the same gender, May said, it was likely that they would have to be split up.

“It’s not getting better,” she said. “It’s getting worse and it’s getting more challenging.”

Nine-year-old Kristen, four-year-old Brynn and six-year-old Harlow pose on the trampoline in their backyard in Charleston, W.V. All three children were adopted from foster care, and were either born dependent on opioids, or exposed to the drugs in utero. The opioid epidemic has pushed thousands of West Virginian children into the foster care system. Today, more than 7,000 children are in state care, a 71 percent increase over the past decade.Hannah Rappleye / NBC News

May, who entered foster care herself at the age of 15, said she worries about the long-term, and cyclical, effects that trauma is having on West Virginia’s children.

“These kids who have had these traumatic experiences, who aren’t having the home experience, they’re becoming adults and also having children,” she said. “It’s a cycle.”

“We really need people who are committed” to becoming foster or adoptive parents, she added. “We are raising the next generation.”

‘We went from zero to five’

Although the need for foster families remains acute, thousands of families in the state have stepped in to help, many of them driven by their personal experiences, their desire to serve their community, or both.

When the email from the foster care agency came, asking if the couple could take five siblings all under the age of 9, the Snuffers rushed to get ready. They traded their two-door car for a van. They borrowed a toddler bed from a friend.

“We went from zero to five,” Nikki said.

It didn’t take long for Louisa and Nikki to realize that the trauma the children had been through would take years to process and heal.

One of the first signs came in the form of a pair of shoes. Addison, then just 8, arrived wearing a pair of torn-up sneakers that she had been given in foster care. When Nikki and Louisa threw the old pair away and replaced them with a brand-new pair, Addison fell apart.

“We were like, ‘We got you a brand-new pair,'” Louisa said.

But to Addison, that didn’t matter.

“She was like, ‘Those were my new shoes,'” Louisa said. “And they were hers. They were hers. That was the thing.”

The children, who spent more than a year and a half in foster care, didn’t know what it was like to have their own things, and they knew that the few things they did have could be taken at a moment’s notice.

According to their caseworker’s notes, they also didn’t know what it was like to eat, or bathe, regularly. The youngest, 2-year-old Kristen, had been born dependent on opioids. Ethan, 3, could speak only a few words. The two of them clung to each other, often speaking in their own made-up language.