Addiction Crisis Affects Growing Number of NJ Kids

By Erin Delmore

“The child feels like they’re alone. And they’re basically raising themselves,” said Frank Garris, community outreach worker for Family Support Organization of Essex County.

It’s a situation faced by a growing number of New Jersey kids, as the sweeping drug addiction crisis touches every county in every corner of the state.

“A lot of people say as the old saying goes, it’s not a problem until it hits my house. And it’s hit a lot of people’s houses so a lot of people have reached out to places like the Family Support Organization of Essex County for that help that they need,” Garris said.

Workers at Family Support Organizations offer peer-to-peer counseling and resources to caregivers, including parents struggling with addiction.

“Most parents say we come in as Family Support Organization of Essex County are you coming to take my child? No. We’re coming in to work with you to make sure that your child has the best outcomes. It is no one’s goal to remove the child from the home but we have to make sure that the child is safe in the home,” said Jacquelyn Oliver, program director for the Family Support Organization of Essex County.

The FSO’s job is to step in before a child needs to be removed from his or her home. The Department of Children and Families told us that nearly a third of all child abuse and neglect investigations revealed caregiver’s substance use. Nearly two-thirds of kids in foster care were removed from their homes at least partly for that reason.

Addiction is only a fraction of Family Support Organization’s work. They help parents and caregivers dealing with a child’s anxiety, depression or behavioral issues.

“They’ll present the child as having a challenge. But many times when you peel back the layers, as you get to know them, they’ll share, ‘well you know I use to have a problem with this and I’m X number of years in recovery,’” said Family Support Organization of Essex County Executive Director Hazeline Pilgrim.

“We all look at our parents to be our leaders and to be our teachers, and when that parent isn’t there, who do you turn to?” Garris asked.

The Family Support Organizations try to weave a network of support for the child. They’ll work with a temporary caretaker — ideally, a family member — while parents are away. They’ve worked with families while a parent is in rehab or jail.

“But then you have those cases where the parent had no one and we have to rely on the system — the foster care system, the child welfare system — to step in and intervene to keep the child safe,” Oliver said.

More than 7,000 New Jersey kids are in foster care, nearly 49,000 under child protective supervision. The true number of vulnerable children? Unknown.

For more stories that are part of the initiative Healthy NJ: New Jersey’s Drug Addiction Crisis, click here.