'The families are just so ill'; Meth continues to affect Bedford County foster care

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BEDFORD COUNTY, Va. (WDBJ7)-- Kathy McElroy has worked in foster care for two decades. She has seen a lot, but McElroy has never seen anything have as great an impact on Bedford County's foster care system as methamphetamine.

Leaders with Bedford County Department of Social Services said at least half of the children in foster care come from families with substance abuse problems.

"I’ve never seen people not wanting to visit their infant child in the hospital before," said McElroy. "They just don’t show up they are out doing meth."

WDBJ7 first met McElroy in October of 2017. That is when the Bedford County Department of Social Services first recorded a significant increase in substance abuse related cases. There were about 80 children in care and the workers were shocked. DSS was used to having about 50 children at a time.

Two years later, there are 111 children currently in foster care in Bedford County. At least half of those children come from families battling a meth addiction.

“It is rarely a week goes by that we don’t get a child in care," said McElory.

Since the beginning of October, 18 children have entered into care. That is the most children the county has ever received in the shortest amount of time.

McElroy said the influx is putting a strain on her staff and overtime is through the roof. Children are having to stay in care for longer and not as many are returning home.

"I have one worker who said to me, 'what am I doing wrong? My kids aren't going home,' and it is not that she is doing anything wrong. The families are just so ill," said McElroy.

In addition, McElroy said that more children are entering into foster care after experiencing intense trauma. She said at least five children have entered foster care addicted themselves.

"You see a lot of things that you never would have thought went on in the county," said Lisa Mackey, a foster care parent. "A lot of things that kids go through that they shouldn't have to."

Mackey and her husband were originally parents to three children. In the last four years, though, they have become honorary parents to 35 foster children.

The Mackeys usually care for five foster care children at a time. They rarely ever say no to a phone call asking for placement. If they have room, they open their door.

"Because the need is so great in Bedford," said Mackey.

County leaders meet with each other to discuss the negative effect meth is having on the foster care system, but no easy solution is in sight.

"We get together with child protective services and our community partners, but we can't come up with a solution," said McElroy. "Saying 'don't use meth' or 'stop' doesn't work."

McElroy said the county is in need of foster families. People can also help by supporting foster families. DSS does not receive funding for things like birthdays and Christmas.

Mackey said as long as there is a need, and she has room, her door will stay open. Her family will offer what they can.

"A safe place to be to be taken care of. Structure," said Mackey.