‘They’re My Safe Place’: Children of Addicted Parents, Raised by Relatives
PORTSMOUTH, Ohio — Hannah Thurman’s new life began with her father’s murder.
She was 9, a scared girl who had often shielded her brothers while their parents violently fought, who had contemplated suicide in the fourth grade, who had spent many summers locked outside her family’s trailer while her parents got high.
After her father’s death, and as her mother spiraled deeper into an opioid addiction, her aunt and uncle took in her and her brothers.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” said Hannah, sitting at a kitchen table with reindeer-themed place mats.
Hannah, now 17, is an artistic young woman who enjoys making French toast with her uncle and watching movies with the entire family of seven on most weeknights. She has not talked to her mother in more than five years.
“My feeling of love toward her has faded away,” Hannah said. “I hope she’s doing O.K., but I don’t care anymore. She never cared for us.”
More than a quarter of the nearly 27,000 children who were removed from their homes last year in Ohio were placed in the care of relatives or other adults deemed “kinship” — coaches, teachers or family friends. From 2010 to 2018, the number of Ohio children placed in kinship homes increased by nearly 140 percent, with a nearly 50 percent surge from 2016 to 2018 alone.
Here in Scioto County — a mix of faded industrial towns and horse farms on Ohio’s southern border with Kentucky and long known as ground zero in the state’s opioid epidemic — at least 69 people have fatally overdosed this year, according to the Ohio Department of Health. It is the highest toll in two decades.
Of the 394 children in the county removed from their homes last year, 47 percent were placed in kinship care.
In Portsmouth, the county seat, at least a quarter of the school district’s nearly 650 junior high and high school students have a close relative who uses drugs. At least 140 — more than 20 percent — do not live with their parents, including 41 who are considered homeless, said Beth Burke, a guidance counselor at Portsmouth High School. Family addiction has affected more than half the members of the school’s softball team, the coach said.
During her 17 years of teaching, April Deacon, Hannah’s art teacher, has witnessed a pattern of relatives stepping in to care for children whose parents are struggling with addiction. An increasing number of children are floating from house to house, living with friends or others.
Sensitive to that reality, Ms. Deacon said she always begins her family portrait lesson by explaining that family is whatever her pupils determine it to be. “I can’t think of any student painting a two-parent family right now,” she said.
Jocelyn Cooper, 15, went to live with her aunt and uncle two years ago after a school administrator grew concerned about her failing grades. Jocelyn recalled urinating in a bottle as a child so her mother, a longtime heroin addict, would pass her drug tests while on probation. She said her mother never looked at her grades or put her to bed.
At 9, Jocelyn was picked up by the school bus at a rehab center where she and her mother briefly lived.
Since moving in with her aunt’s family, Jocelyn has experienced the home life she always craved. She now has prescription eyeglasses and a closet’s worth of clothes that are strewn about her bedroom. She gets lots of hugs. The entire family went on a Caribbean cruise this year.
But Jocelyn said she was especially thankful for the things most people take for granted.
“It’s so crazy to walk into the kitchen and there’s food every day,” she said, gushing about her aunt’s biscuits and gravy. “Normally I was ordering pizza or walking to get food at Wendy’s.”
Even so, for several months Jocelyn blamed her aunt for taking her away from her mother. For Jocelyn, who spent 13 years raising herself, the adjustment was difficult, and it has taken a toll on the entire family.
“There have been times I’ve sat on my bed and bawled my eyes out,” said her aunt, Sonia Banks, who gained permanent custody of Jocelyn in 2017. “Sometimes I feel like everything I’ve done doesn’t matter.”
Jocelyn’s emotional turmoil intensified after her father died of an overdose in January, inflaming her sense of guilt about leaving her mother, who she said has since and fallen deeper into addiction.
“I feel like if I’m not there then I can’t help her,” Jocelyn said.
‘They’re my safe place.’
Nationwide, the number of children living with a relative has risen steadily over the past decade, reaching 32 percent of those in foster care in 2017, according to Child Trends, a nonprofit research group. As addiction has shattered families in Scioto County, the burden of raising children has increasingly fallen on the foster care system or relatives, though many relatives have been unable to pass drug tests, child welfare officials and educators said.
Growing up, Hannah and her two younger brothers saw their father snort pills and punch holes in the walls. In the first grade, she had to heat up ramen noodles before school while their parents slept in or used drugs. At 7, she called 911 after seeing their mother chase their father with a knife.
“I didn’t have a childhood,” she said.
Summer breaks were especially joyless. Every day, Hannah said, she and James were locked outside by their parents and given a pitcher of water and a few bologna sandwiches or cold hot dogs.
“We weren’t allowed back inside until they were either done doing their drugs or their friends were gone,” Hannah said.
Their aunt, Christina Burns, the sister of Hannah’s mother, said she would often invite Hannah and James over for sleepovers or spend time at their home. “I always stuck around to make sure I knew what was going on,” she said.
Ms. Burns, who is 35 and a general manager at a Wendy’s, knows what it’s like to be abandoned. When she was 7, her mother died, and her father, who struggled with a dependency on drugs and alcohol, sent her and her siblings to live with an abusive, drug-addicted aunt.
Ms. Burns said her father eventually introduced Hannah’s mother to drugs — first marijuana and later pain pills. He overdosed and died in 2012.
That was an especially bad year for Hannah. Seven months after her grandfather’s death, Hannah’s father was killed by her mother’s boyfriend, who was convicted in the murder the following year.
Hannah remembers that night as if it were yesterday: She was in bed and could hear the three grown-ups arguing when the roar of a shotgun tore through the home. She remembers pressing towels to her father’s grave stomach wound.
“It’s imprinted in our brains,” she said.
Hannah’s mother, Anna Thurman, swiftly spiraled further into drug use. “At the funeral she left the kids behind and went and partied with his best friend,” Ms. Burns said.
Ms. Thurman later took her children, and for the next three weeks they bounced between houses and a motel frequented by drug users. Then a school guidance counselor told Ms. Burns that Hannah had expressed a desire to kill herself.
A few weeks later, Ms. Burns gained emergency custody, and brought the Thurman children home to live with her fiancé, David Boren, and their two children. Hannah and her brother James recalled the relief they felt.
“We got told ‘I love you’ every night,” Hannah said. “We still do.”
Their mother did not let go so easily, and Ms. Burns said she had to take out a restraining order. After Ms. Thurman violated it, they moved to a new home where she could not find them.
Hannah and her brothers have since flourished. “My uncle got me hooked on football,” said James, 15, a junior varsity linebacker at Portsmouth High School. “When I was young we didn’t do sports, but now it’s my favorite thing.”
Hannah is now an honors student with a 3.8 grade point average and dreams of becoming a graphic designer. She is a member of the marching band’s color guard and adores art class, where she often makes multiple projects for a given assignment.
At home, Ms. Burns and Mr. Boren have nurtured family traditions, like home-cooked dinners on Sunday and camping trips. At 8 p.m. each weeknight, everyone sits in recliners to watch a movie while munching on candy that Ms. Burns stows in a special bin near the television.
“I grew up knowing what it felt like to be the outcast and not be loved,” Ms. Burns said. “So I knew that I could never allow these kids to ever feel that way.”
Hannah keeps photos of her parents in a collage hanging above her bed, but she said her aunt and uncle had given her a real family.
“They’re my safe place,” she said. “I don’t have to be scared anymore.”
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