The Parents Passed a Drug Test. Should They Get Their Children Back?

Dan Levin
A photo of Dylan Groves at the home of his one-time foster parent, Andrea Bowling, in Portsmouth, Ohio, Sept. 29, 2019. (Alyssa Schukar/The New York Times)

PORTSMOUTH, Ohio — Dylan Groves had suffered tremendously long before his tiny body was found in June at the bottom of a 30-foot well, decomposed and wrapped in plastic bags. He had been born a few months earlier with several drugs in his system and had spent his first days in the care of a foster mother who had cuddled him while he shook and sweated through withdrawal.

After 12 days, the foster mother, Andrea Bowling, was ordered to return Dylan to his father. “I begged and pleaded for more time,” she said she told the county’s child welfare agency.

“I told them Dylan’s not ready, that he needed lots of love and care, but it fell on deaf ears,” said Bowling, who has a son of her own and has taken in four other foster children since Dylan left her house in January.

Bowling, 41, handed Dylan to his father, along with blankets, diapers and a letter that asked the man to call if he needed any help. Over the next few weeks, she asked Scioto County Children Services several times about Dylan but received only terse replies saying she was no longer privy to that information. Employees warned her to not be a hindrance to family reunification.

Bowling never heard from Dylan’s parents, and she never saw Dylan again.

Dylan’s death followed a dozen child deaths across Ohio between 2014 and 2018 that occurred from abuse or neglect after children who had been removed from their homes were returned to their parents or caregivers. It has highlighted lapses in the Scioto County agency — which lost track of Dylan a few months after he was returned to his father — and has renewed criticism of the state’s patchwork system of child welfare agencies that educators, foster parents and elected officials said operate with little oversight or accountability and prioritize family reunification above all else.

His death, too, underscored the devastating consequences of an opioid epidemic that has reshaped everything from how children are raised to how they are being taught in school.

Across Ohio, nearly 4,900 people died from unintentional overdoses in 2017 — 51 of them in Scioto County — and nearly 27,000 children were taken from their homes last year, with addiction a leading reason for their removal.

According to a coroner’s report, Dylan died of “homicidal violence” when he was about 2 months old. His left leg, left arm and skull had been fractured. He had two broken left ribs and soft tissue hemorrhaging in his chest. A toxicology analysis found the presence of methamphetamine and amphetamine in his liver.

Dylan’s parents, Jessica Groves, 40, and Daniel Groves, 42, have been charged with his death and have pleaded not guilty to murder, kidnapping and other charges.

“If it wasn’t for Dylan being in the hands of those people,” Bowling said, “he would be alive today.”

Fragile Foster Care

In Scioto County, a mix of verdant farmland and old mill towns on Ohio’s southern border with Kentucky, nearly everyone appears to know someone who has struggled with drug dependency.

Today, the county has the state’s highest rate of babies born with the opioid withdrawal condition known as neonatal abstinence syndrome, and the foster care placement rate is more than double that of the state’s average.

Last year in Ohio, which in 2017 had the second-highest rate of opioid overdose deaths in the nation, there were about 7,700 qualified foster homes for the 27,000 children who needed them. About a quarter of those children were placed with approved relatives or other adults deemed “kinship” — coaches, teachers or family friends.

Ohio is one of nine states that cede authority for day-to-day oversight of child protection to counties, where child welfare agencies have wide latitude over administration and confidentiality.

Of the state’s 88 counties, around 20 have stand-alone public children services agencies. Each is advised by an appointed board that does not have access to confidential information about specific cases, according to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, which also found that 77 of the state’s agencies failed to meet federal child welfare performance standards in 2016.

“People really don’t understand how broken the foster care system is,” said Adam Smith, a former foster parent and a founder of Every Kid Deserves a Voice, an advocacy group.

Smith and his wife started the organization last year after five young foster children they were caring for were removed from their home after the Smiths filed grievances against the children services agency in Morrow County, where they live. He said the reason for their removal has not been explained, and officials with the county agency declined to comment.

Smith said their organization is pressing elected officials in Ohio to pass legislation that would allow courts to consider foster families as equal to next-of-kin after nine months, similar to laws recently passed in Georgia and Arizona.

The need for foster homes is particularly dire in Scioto County, long considered ground zero in the state’s opioid epidemic. Last month, the county had 49 licensed foster homes but more than 200 children in foster care, according to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.

Typically half of the child removal cases are directly related to parental drug use, said Lorra Fuller, who until last month was the director of the county’s children services agency.

Fuller was placed on administrative leave in October after the state’s Department of Job and Family Services found that her agency had not followed required child safety procedures in Dylan’s case. But in earlier interviews, she said the county agency’s 12 case workers investigated about 630 reports of abuse and neglect in 2018.

Nearly 400 children were removed from their homes, she said, with about half of them placed with relatives. But the agency has struggled, she said, to find family members who are not using drugs.

Educators, youths and court officials across the county tell a different story. They claim that despite opening hundreds of cases, the agency has ignored others or has placed children with poorly trained foster parents or ill-equipped relatives.

In a 2016 performance review, the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services found that Scioto County Children Services had failed to meet several federal standards, including protecting children from abuse and neglect, providing adequate mental and physical health services, and ensuring stability of foster care placements.

Melissa Colyer, principal of the Center for Alternative and Progressive Education, a school for children with special needs in Scioto County, said she lost faith in the county agency years ago, when she was working in the county’s schools.

She said the agency declined to investigate several reports that educators made about sisters who had described how to build a meth lab and had detailed their mother’s drug-delivery schedule. And educators made so many reports about another group of siblings, including a fourth-grade girl they feared was being sexually abused, that agency officials told the school to stop calling.

“They said we were harassing the family,” she said.

Colyer also recalled a girl who arrived on the first day of school with a large gash on her head, which the student said was the result of being pushed into a coffee table by her stepfather after she refused to allow her brother to transport drugs.

“Children Services said there’s nothing they could do because she should have called the police when it happened,” Colyer said.

Colyer said she had resorted to reporting signs of abuse directly to the county’s juvenile court.

Alan Lemons, judge for the Scioto County Juvenile Court, said he had often sent his staff to rescue children from unsafe homes. In turn, he said the county agency had repeatedly complained to prosecutors about the court’s efforts and had rebuffed his requests to work together.

“I’m trying to do everything within my power to help,” he said, “and I’m not seeing them do it.”

Calls for Oversight

Scioto County Children Services returned Dylan to his father shortly after he passed a drug test, according to the county’s sheriff’s office. Dylan’s mother also had passed a drug test and sometimes stayed at the home while the baby was in his father’s care, she later told police.

But not long afterward, the agency lost track of Dylan, according to the investigation report, which detailed how his parents missed court dates, home visits and medical appointments. In late April, the sheriff’s office was ordered to remove Dylan from his parents’ home, and a missing person’s report was filed.

The children’s agency briefly debated issuing an Amber Alert. But May 2, Fuller “said that was a bad idea, that it would look bad on them that they lost a child,” the report said, noting that the agency finally filed notice with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at the end of that month. The organization, however, said it has no record of being contacted by the agency at that time.

The sheriff later issued a statement saying that an agency official, and not Fuller, had been the one to object to issuing an Amber Alert. But the revision did little to allay concerns over how the agency, which has been ordered by the state to submit a corrective action plan, handled Dylan’s death.

Bryan Davis, a county commissioner, said he had grown increasingly concerned with the agency’s lack of transparency and its apparent dysfunction.

Davis said the agency’s board recently told him it did not have a governance manual, leaving members uninformed about the policies and procedures that are required to provide adequate oversight of the agency. Instead, he said, the board told him it had simply relied on the agency’s director to offer guidance.

“The system has been broken on many levels,” said Davis, who said he had a personal stake in the management of the agency. He and his wife have custody of two young nephews who had been neglected by their mother.

State elected officials said that to prevent other deaths, Ohio’s child welfare system must be fixed, beginning with requiring more stringent oversight of county-run children services agencies.

Brian Baldridge, a state legislator whose district includes Scioto County, said he had been working on legislation that would standardize how the agencies are run and would ensure children are not returned to their parents until they have a proven record of recovery from addiction — and not just one “short-term clean drug test.”

Even as she grieves, Bowling, Dylan’s former foster mother, has been lobbying Baldridge and other elected officials to pass a law in the infant’s name that will help other babies avoid his fate.

“Dylan is no longer here,” she said, “but I can be his voice.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2019 The New York Times Company