Opioids: kids in crisis
LYNCHBURG, Va. (WSET) -- Every 19 minutes, a baby is born addicted to prescription painkillers in America... and with every passing day, there's a growing fear that there may not be enough foster homes for these youngest victims if something doesn't change soon.
No one knows this battle firsthand better than 5-year-old Grace- that isn't her real name, but that is how we'll address the bright-eyed little girl for the sake of privacy and clarity.
Grace's adopted mom Juli Ann keeps a watchful eye on her as she plays at the park. "She used to be scared to do these kinds of things," she says in awe as Grace skillfully balances on a piece of wood. "She's overcome a lot."
Grace's battle began long before she was even born- while her birth mother was pregnant in jail, they went through prescription painkiller withdrawals together.
"Mom was on a binge and was withdrawing herself and… it induced labor a month early," says Juli Ann.
After the mother was deemed unfit by the state to take care of her baby, she was handed over to Lynchburg's Virginia Baptist Hospital, addicted and alone.
Neonatal nurse practitioner Paula Creekmore remembers Grace well. "One of the doctors noted that she was one of the most intense cases that we'd seen," she says.
She was not only one of the more severe cases, she was also one
Baby Grace was born in pain, with no family or name.
Nurses called her little Baby Jane Doe and provided her comfort while social services tried desperately to find her a home.
"I would go back there in her corner where we tried to keep her quietly tucked away from as much stimulation and just kind of rock her and hold her… and sing," said Creekmore.
Five years ago, a newborn with opioid addiction like hers was rare in Lynchburg. But, things have changed since then.
The Department of Human Services has seen a dramatic and sudden spike of children in their care - either born addicted, or taken away from parents abusing the drugs.
"We might have gone those five or six years past with only having 8-10 cases, said Shana Richardson with Lynchburg DSS. "And now we've seen that many in a years' time."
Shana Richardson has spent more than 17 years finding homes for children in the Hill City. In 2016, she says 11 children entered foster care in Lynchburg due to opioids.
That's nearly as many kids affected as the three previous years combined. And now, it's putting a strain on the foster care system. "We'll need more foster homes to help these children," Richardson explained.
At the heart of the crisis is the fear that there won't be enough homes if something doesn't change soon.
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring says addressing that crisis is a top priority. "We lost over 1,100 Virginians last year alone to an opioid overdose death," Herring said. "That's too many times we have a family that has an empty seat at the dinner table or an empty bedroom upstairs."
I asked Herring what HE was doing to fix the crisis.
"I am relentless in going after the dealers and traffickers who are putting these drugs out on the street..." he explained. But Herring admits there's more to it; and to take care of the children in crisis, it takes a village.
"They called and said it was a six day old baby girl who had severe drug exposure," explained Juli Ann. She knew fostering a baby with addiction would require a lot of time and patience, but she never gave up on her.
Juli Ann waited through the 12 months' "permanency timeline," where a foster child can return to birth parents if they've made a recovery.
Sadly, this wasn't the case for Jane Doe, but her story doesn't end there. She became Juli Ann's newest daughter.
Juli Ann didn't change the drug crisis in the world, but she did change the world for one little girl. "She walks and talks like a normal child now… but it took her lots of therapy, lots of work, lots of tears," said Juli Ann.
And for the little girl who was told she may never lead a normal life, she gets to know she can reach for the stars.
Right now, there are 170 children in foster care and 90 foster homes in total.
Many of those are full, but if you'd like to open up YOUR home to a child like Grace...