MANATEE -- Manatee County's heroin epidemic is taking a toll on some of its youngest residents.
Child welfare officials Tuesday said they removed more Manatee County children from their homes in the first eight months of 2015 than in all of 2014. Heroin and other drugs were at the root of most of the removals.
As of August, 388 children -- 68 percent under the age of 5 -- were sheltered in out-of-home placements partially because of the county's heroin epidemic, according to the Child Welfare System Advocate Annual Report presented to the county commission Tuesday.
The primary reason for removal includes parental substance abuse about 61 percent of the time. Of those, heroin and opioids accounted for about 36 percent of the removals, according to the presentation.
While the number of calls
to the Florida Abuse Hotline has remained relatively consistent in the past three years -- at an average of 356 calls per month -- the number of children sheltered so far in 2015 is "the shocking thing," child welfare systems advocate Laura McIntyre said Tuesday.
McIntyre also pointed to the large percentage of the children under the age of 5.
"They are the most vulnerable," she said Tuesday. "The ones with the least amount of voice and the ones that are not in child care or visible in the community."
Maj. Connie Shingledecker with the Manatee County Sheriff's Office said substance abuse being the main reason for child removal is nothing new.
"Substance abuse is consistently the No. 1 reason for removal, and two is domestic violence," she said. "And that goes back years."
However, Shingledecker said the number of substance abuse cases related to heroin or opioids is growing. There were 179 children sheltered in 2013, with 90 related to substance abuse. Figures were unavailable on how much of that was heroin.
But in 2014, when 387 children were removed from their parents' care, 231, or 60 percent, of those cases were because of substance abuse, and 59, or about 26 percent, of those cases were due to heroin and other opioids.
Of the 85 children removed because of opioid/heroin abuse in 2015, 63 were placed in the care of relatives or others known to the children, Shingledecker said.
"That's important, because it's easier on the children," Shingledecker said. "Not that our temporary homes don't do a good job, but it tends to be an easier transition."
During Tuesday's presentation to the commission, McIntyre gave an overview about the child welfare system and the Family Safety Alliance.
In Manatee County, approximately 704 children are in the child welfare system. Of the children removed from their homes, the county, on average, is able to reunify the children within 12 months of removal.
"We can't always do that safely," McIntyre said of the reunification. "This is a very good number. We are one of the best in the state."
While child welfare system adoption preservation services end shortly after finalization, the county's Children's Services Advisory Board recently looked at the issue of adoption services and "identified it as a need in Manatee County for services for adoptive families," Brenda Rogers, the county's community services department director, said Tuesday.
The county will begin rolling out a new program for adoptive families on Oct. 1, Rogers said.
"So we don't have to wait until the family is in crisis before they can seek help," she said.
Commission Chairwoman Betsy Benac said it's a matter of getting the best resources to try to address the problems.
"It is important for these families to know that there are places that they can turn for help," she said.
Claire Aronson, Manatee County reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024. Follow her on Twitter @Claire_Aronson.