By TIM COOK
CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. — Some consequences from the opioid addiction crisis in the Eastern Panhandle can be hard to overlook, but a sometimes less-prominent effect from the drug crisis that Jefferson County Schools administrators see is a dramatic increase in the number of students whose home lives are in disarray.
Most recently, there has been a spike in the number of students officially classified as homeless under federal public policy definitions–a statistic that has been rising over the past three years.
“This, unfortunately, is an ongoing issue,” said Sheri Hoff, director of attendance for Jefferson County Schools. “We honestly think that the increase we’ve seen of homeless children really does come from drugs.”
Last week, Jefferson County public schools officials identified 1,248 students as living — potentially only briefly — under conditions included in the federal homeless definition, representing nearly 14 percent of the school system’s overall 9,170 student population. Last year 820 of the county’s students were officially identified as homeless, and 758 were during the previous school year.
Members of Jefferson County’s board of education could not be immediately reached for comment on the precipitous rise in homeless students. Neither could Superintendent Bondy Shay Gibson.
However, Kathryn Bradley, community services manager with the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR), agrees with Hoff’s view that more of the lives and living situations of youth in the Jefferson and Berkeley counties are unsettled by instability and insecurity from opioid addition within their families.
Bradley oversees foster care cases for the department’s district that covers Morgan, Berkeley and Jefferson counties.
Her role involves managing foster care cases directed by a court, all of which involve a criminal case involving drugs or parents unable to care for children because of substance abuse.
“If I’m involved the legal system is definitely involved,” she said. “My custody numbers are way up. It’s been a steady increase for me over the last three years.”
“A big portion of it is related to substance abuse,” she added. “We’re doing more to remove children (from their homes) due to their parents substance abuse.”
West Virginia DHHR officials provided the number of children in foster care each month in the Eastern Panhandle so far this year through September. Jefferson County averaged 34 foster care cases per month. Berkeley County averaged 169 cases per month. Morgan County averaged about 2 cases.
Delving into the Numbers
Last week’s first assessment of the number of homeless students in Jefferson County is expected to rise as the school year progresses, but not drastically, said Hoff, who monitors individual students as well as the overall the issue of homeless students.
“The bulk of our (homeless) students are always identified within the first two months of school,” she explained.
Hoff pointed out that a number of factors that change a student’s living circumstances can make him or her homeless under the federal criteria school systems use nationwide. Some students’ homeless situations can be short-lived and relatively benign. Other students face periodic roller-coaster living situations, and some troublesome conditions for students can persistent for years, she said.
Children in foster care, but not placed in foster homes are included in the homeless student data. Students in migrant families are also included, as are runaways. But children from families of all backgrounds now destabilized and disrupted by drug addiction are skewing the statistic of homelessness, Hoff said.
“It’s across all ages, demographics, socioeconomic stages,” she said of the students affected by drug addiction. “It’s across the board.”
Officials with neighboring Berkeley County Schools could not be reached for comment about the status and number of their school system’s homeless student population.
In Morgan County, Russell Penner, a director of attendance and of secondary schools there, said the number of homeless students there defined by federal law has been holding relatively steady. “We’ve always been between 90 and 120” students, he said. “We’ve always been in the range.”
This fall, the Morgan County’s public schools reported that 96 of its estimated 2,327 students fell under the federal homelessness definition, about 4 percent of the system’s overall student population. “I’m sure that number is probably under-reported,” Penner said. “I’m sure there are more families living in a situation of McKinney-Vento (homeless definition). It’s difficult.”
As the school system’s liaison on homeless issues, Penner helps ensure signs of student’s potentially destabilized home situation are reported. He also follows up with the families of those students to make sure they know what nonprofit or government assistance might be available.
In many situations in Morgan County, students identified as officially homeless are being raised by a grandparent because of a family change, such as a job loss or illness. In other cases, students and families are doubling up under a single roof with other relatives because of a sudden economic hardship, Penner said.
“I think a big part of it is our economy,” he said of displaced Morgan County students.
Tracking displaced students
Very few students in Jefferson County who are considered homeless don’t have a particular and routine place to sleep at night, Hoff said. Where they lay their heads, however, varies. While many stay with relatives or friends, some students pack into hotels or motels with family members. Others rent campground spaces or use transition shelters.
“Sometimes they’re what we call couch surfing,” Hoff said.
Every school year, Hoff said she learns about students living with their families throughout the year in tents in wooded areas along the Shenandoah River. A considerable number students who are classified as homeless, she said, are living in trailers without electricity, which is considered substandard housing.
Like those in other school districts, teachers and staff in Jefferson County receive training at the beginning of every school year explaining how and when to report students with substandard home situations, Hoff said. Sometimes a bus driver notices and reports a change in a student’s living situation. Often, it’s a cafeteria worker who notices a student not eating lunch.
Regardless of how they’re identified, those students and their families are contacted to see what services or assistance the school system or local agencies could provide, Hoff said.
“Our support,” she said, “is for the child and to keep them educated and to keep them safe.”
Sometimes homeless students receive medical care, which can mean anything from obtaining eyeglasses to immunizations, or arranging an appointment with a local doctor offering a free exam, Hoff said. Often, the school system provides tooth brushes or deodorant to help those students maintain good hygiene and healthy social interactions. Occasionally, students will shower in the morning at school before the school day.
“Sometimes it’s the little things they need,” she said. “We try to meet their needs so they can come to school. It’s always in a quiet, gentle way.”
Recently, Hoff visited a mother with three elementary school children dislocated to a rudimentary mobile home after their father was incarcerated on drug charges. The mother was struggling as the family’s financial provider by cleaning houses. Hoff brought the family food, clothes and other items purchased from donations collected from the school system’s central administration staff, she said.
Public schools are a microcosm of society, Hoff said. If a certain percentage of adults have a drug problem, then expect the same proportion of students in the local school system to be affected by the same problem. Homelessness is one of those indirect effects, she said.
“You would have to live under a rock,” she said, “not to know that this is part of our society.”
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