- Associated Press - Sunday, April 26, 2015

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. (AP) - It’s not always easy being a kid, and now some local adults have a better idea about their problems - thanks to this year’s Child Watch Initiative bus tour, which allowed participants to experience issues such as neglect and abuse through the eyes of a child.

Sponsored by the Family Resource Network of the Eastern Panhandle, the annual event drew approximately 30 individuals - there was also a waiting list to attend - from various backgrounds including public education, social service agencies, counselors and daycare providers.

The April 21 daylong schedule began when they boarded a school bus before making stops at the Berkeley County Department of Health and Human Resources, Berkeley Medical Center Emergency Department, Safe Haven Children’s Advocacy Center, Children’s Home Society Children’s Shelter, CASA of the Eastern Panhandle and National Youth Advocate Program.

Following lunch, participants also met with officials at the Berkeley County Judicial Center, including Circuit Judge Mike Lorensen.

The various presentations not only touched on illegal drug use, but also sexual and physical abuse/neglect as well as various behavioral health issues - all coupled with a lack of local treatment facilities, officials agreed.

Deb Barthlow, regional director of the Children’s Home Society of West Virginia’s Martinsburg site, was the first speaker to address the group and got tears in her eyes as she recalled various situations faced by children who are simply trying to survive.

“This isn’t a subject that many people either know a lot about, or care to discuss, but it is important that the public understand what many children are facing. So we want to focus on the kids as well as providing some insight into the resources that are available to them,” Barthlow said.

Unfortunately, in many ways, she said, the situation isn’t getting better because of the area’s illegal drug use problem - including heroin addiction.

“We really want people to see how much adult problems can impact kids. I really do think people are starting to pay a lot more attention to why children have to be helped through the social service system. And very frequently there is some drug use or abuse in the background that affects the children, as well as the teenagers we see coming through the emergency shelter,” Barthlow said.

Family Resource Network Executive Director Kathy Olson agreed that drug abuse is contributing to many youngsters’ problems.

“From what I know when a child is removed from a home, there does tend to be a drug or alcohol connection. It’s just upsetting to know what some of them have to go through,” Olson said.

“Heroin is a big problem locally, and that is something that’s been acknowledged locally by many people including law enforcement. And in many cases, that kind of drug use can contribute to serious neglect where kids are living in homes where parents are nonfunctional,” she said.

DHHR Social Services Coordinator Tzouri Oliver spoke to the group about the assessment process and how workers determine if a child is potentially at risk.

Information is vital and comes from a variety of sources including the child, parents, other children in the home or relatives and possibly others - such as community members - who may know the family, she said, adding that mandatory reporters include teachers.

Thanks to a recent change in the law, everyone is considered a mandatory reporter in the case of suspected sexual abuse, Oliver said.

However, the first step is to determine if the reported situation meets the definition of abuse and neglect, she said.

Participants were surprised to learn that foster homes are now in short supply, because so many children are being cared for by the social service system.

“As a matter of fact, right now we are out of foster homes. And (April 17), we had to send a 5-year-old to Charleston,” Oliver said.

At Berkeley Medical Center, ER director Chuck Hilty and head behavioral health crisis worker Val Gorman talked about the problems they encounter on almost a daily basis - primarily due to the limited number of facilities where patients (youth as well as adults) can be sent.

Their dilemma includes patients sometimes having to wait for a period of time in the ER department, only to then encounter no way to transport an individual to a facility that may be across West Virginia (such as Chestnut Ridge in Morgantown) or located in a neighboring state.

They agreed distance can be a barrier to a patient’s recovery, especially juveniles whose parents don’t always have the financial resources to make these kinds of trips, adding that behavioral health treatment isn’t the only issue.

“The simple truth is that outpatient resources are limited. While we do have a 23-bed unit that can admit adults, we don’t have a substance abuse facility, so that’s also a community issue,” Gorman said.


Information from: The Journal, https://journal-news.net/

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