COLORADO SPRINGS — News5 Investigates has learned you will not find a county in the State of Colorado that handles more reports of child abuse and neglect than El Paso County. Child welfare officials say you combine that with countywide substance abuse issues and it becomes a crisis.
The Department of Human Services in El Paso County showed News5 the numbers. By year end more than 16,500 calls will come into their office as reports of child abuse and neglect. Already this year at least 859 children have been removed from their homes. At least 2,495 in the last three years. That breaks down to about 7 kids a day. Child welfare experts say the opioid epidemic and substance abuse are big contributors to these numbers.
"These children have things in common that will always be problematic for them because using drugs was not their choice," said Mary Stark.
Stark is a Court Appointed Special Advocate or CASA, who assists children experiencing child abuse and neglect by parents addicted to drugs or alcohol.
"The children that I've served have all had drug use in utero. Their mothers use drugs when they were pregnant and so I have seen a newborn go through withdrawal I have seen the effects that it left her with sensitivity to light and sound with the inability to suck or swallow. She had a feeding tube for five years," said Stark.
Between September 2018 and August of this year there were at least 154 substance exposed newborns in El Paso County. Stark says along with medical problems, a little boy she worked with continued to face struggles with parents addicted to drugs.
"He had never had shoes or had shoes put on his feet he has never been spoken to he didn't speak his teeth were rotting out of his jaw because he was never fed he was just given bottles so he was not able to even know what whole food tasted like. His teeth were so rotten that I watched him as a two-and-a-half-year-old place a piece of food in his mouth in different places looking for the spot that didn't hurt," said Stark.
Working on the boy's behalf, Stark says he was able to get help after landing in a foster home.
"The day after he had a surgery I had a visit with him and he greeted me at the door smiling ear-to-ear showing me his new teeth. That was cool. he also learned to speak and he learned how to put shoes on and he got potty trained pretty quickly after moving into foster care," said Stark.
Executive Director of El Paso County's Department of Human Services Julie Krow says there's a shortage of foster parents. About 100 new foster homes are needed right now to meet the current demand.
"We start in our own community because it's best for children to be raised in their own community because it's traumatic enough to have to go to foster care and if you then also have to move your school lose your friends lose your natural support systems around you that just contributed to the trauma so it's really important to keep children in their own community when at all possible," said Krow.
Year after year calls to the El Paso County Child Abuse Hotline increase. At the time caseworkers get involved, Crow says a lot of parents are under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
"If we were to eliminate substance abuse. It is likely that we would see a decrease in our referrals of child abuse and neglect in El Paso County. It can be hard to safely parent if you're under the influence of drugs or alcohol," said Krow.
Fighting addiction goes well beyond El Paso County. It's a crisis even the children's show sesame street couldn't ignore.
New Muppet Karli was introduced to the world. Her parents are struggling with addiction.
"I love my mom so much and she couldn't take good care of me because she was having such a tough time," Karli said on one program.
She's part of Sesame Street in Communities. It's supplemental content that is free to providers, parents and caregivers designed just for kids who are often the unseen victims of addiction.
Karli appears alongside 10-year-old Salia Woodbury whose own parents battled opioid addiction and are now in recovery. Even at 10, Salia says she relates to Karli and hopes other kids will too.
"I want them to know that we're not alone. We'll all feel like our big feelings inside// we're strong and we can all work together to go through it," said Woodbury.
Back in El Paso County, Mary Stark says she'll continue appearing in courtrooms on behalf of children who need her the most and she hopes people will recognize the impact of addiction and child neglect which can happen anywhere.
"It can happen to anybody and if you think it can't happen in your family I'm sorry to tell you but you are wrong," said Stark. "You are absolutely wrong."
So how can you help children in need in our communities?
One way is to meet the needs of children is through https://careportal.org/
It's a nationwide website where you can search by county and you'll find requests for things like groceries, winter coats, diapers, toys, and hygiene products and you have an opportunity to donate to meet that need. All requests submitted through the care portal come from caseworkers at government child welfare agencies.
If you are interested in learning more about being a CASA advocate like Mary Stark who was featured in our story visit: https://www.casappr.org/
If you are interested in taking a more active role in a child's life you can learn about ways you can contribute to foster care for children in need by visiting https://hopeandhome.org/
Also, you can learn more information about the child welfare process at: https://humanservices.elpasoco.com/
If you need to report a case Colorado Child Abuse & Neglect Hotline – 1-844-CO-4-KIDS (1-844-264-5437)
For more information state leaders recommend visiting: http://www.co4kids.org/
Kids Crossingwebsite: https://www.kidscrossing.com/
Phone: Colorado Springs: 719-632-4569, Pueblo: 719-545-3882