7 INVESTIGATES: Foster children paying the price of substance misuse

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MARATHON COUNTY, Wis. (WSAW) -- “How many strangers have you called Mom or Dad? ...When did everyday moments start making you jump?”

Years of experience witnessing the effects of trauma on foster children motivated Sandy Schmidt, a Wausau foster mom of five years, to write down what she was seeing.

“It must be hard to trust people who say they’ll protect you...and let yourself be loved again.”

As we reported yesterday, the number of children in the Marathon County foster system has doubled in the last several years, with experts attributing that rise directly to the increase in methamphetamine and opioid use. Data from the Wisconsin Counties Association says an average of 80% of children statewide in the system are there due to substance abuse issues at home. The resulting behavioral impacts on the children who pay the price of the abuse can range from low self esteem to an early onset of experimentation with substance use, AODA Clinical Supervisor Deb Piskoty says.

“Dropping grades, things like emotional and behavioral issues such as anger,” Piskoty describes. “Low self esteem, truancy issues, early onset of experimentation with substance abuse. They may end up parenting the parent.”

But perhaps most chilling of all is the age at which Piskoty sees children experimenting with the substance use that they’re seeing around them.

“I’ve worked with kids as young as 12 years old that have been using meth,” Piskoty told us. “They’ve learned what they lived...children can’t learn anything else. They’re doing what they know, what’s normal to them.”

Those trauma-based behaviors Sandy can describe in vivid detail from years of experience, as in the case of the boy who inspired her writings.

“He went up to the bedroom and all of his belongings he packed, and hid them under the bed so that no one could take them...He was scared to sleep here. So he shut the door and locked it. He kept locking it. And we told him, ‘We have to have the door open so everyone’s safe, so we know what’s going on.’ And he didn’t trust that no one would come him late at night and do something to him. He was scared.”

It wasn’t a desire to be naughty, she explained--his instincts were just trying to survive.

“They need love, they need patience,” Sandy’s husband Patrick Schmidt said. “And they need guidelines, and they need structure. But at the same time, in that, they really need a lot of love and reassurance that they’re gonna be safe and they’re gonna be okay.”

7-year Wausau foster parent veterans Tim and Sue Mathson describe similar behaviors, and Sue adds that many of her concerns focus on what happens to the children at school.

“I think the system isn't set up to know how to help these kids,” she noted. “If they’re looked upon as being naughty early on in our system, where are they going to end up later?”

But many times, when they pick up another foster child from school, the Mathsons say there’s often a person breathing a sigh of relief that finally, the child is getting some help.

“I’ve always been surprised with the number of people in the school that are looking out for them,” Tim continued. “It could be a teacher, it could be a janitor at school, it could be anybody.”

“I know that people say, well, what kind of difference can you make in six months?” Sue noted. “But we have a foster child that has told us that the best thing that ever happened to her was being in foster care in our house.”

Part 1: Opioids, meth driving spike in Marathon County foster care
Part 2: Marathon County stretched thin on on foster care funding
Web Extra: "A Kind of Hard I'll Never Know"