The most innocent victims of the opioid epidemic are children across the nation but recent studies show, the foster care numbers in West Virginia, are above the national average.

According to data from State of Babies, for every 1,000 babies born in West Virginia, 24.6 are removed from their home because of maltreatment. That’s three times higher than the national average, which is 7 per 1,000.

“It was unsettling and not surprising,” said Kelli Caseman, executive director of ‘Think Kids,’ in reaction to the new data. “I was wondering if this would be the point in which we got some public out cry as to the rippling effect of the opioid epidemic on our kids.”

‘Think Kids’ is a non-profit organization that researches and collects data on the well-being of children throughout West Virginia. Caseman says their data is taken directly to policy makers and community leaders in hopes of educating and advocating for change. Advertisement “When you compare (West Virginia) to Virginia, which has the lowest at about 2.5 per 1000, you see there’s something definitely going on in West Virginia that’s not going on in Virginia,” said Caseman. “Now, certainly poverty has historically played a role in West Virginia but the increase in our substance use disorder in our state has definitely made an impact.”

Caseman said one of the biggest issues their organization faces is the unprecedented times the state is facing.

“It’s unchartered territory, so one of the most things we need to do is assess the data and come up with a strategic plan and that means breaking down all of these different systems and talk to communities to understand what they need.”

Caseman suggested more community compassion, parenting classes and having health fairs.

Right now, out of over 7,200 children in the West Virginia foster care system, 85 percent of the cases involve drug use. “We are number one for babies who are removed from the home, if you look at the national child abuse reporting system, you’ll see that we are number two in the country for child maltreatment and that’s (major) cases,” Caseman told WSAZ, “Children under the age of one are usually our highest demographic of child maltreatment, that’s both abuse and neglect.”

Jeff Newcomer and his wife adopted their now 2-year-old son Christopher when he was just seven-weeks-old. Newcomer said when they first got their son, he had 13 broken bones because of maltreatment. “He was very malnourished when he came to the hospital, he had marijuana in his system from what we understand,” said Newcomer.

Newcomer said the process to adopting their son was a lengthy one but he appreciated that background checks, home visits and ensuring a safe environment was apart of the requirements. There were also weekly, 2-hour parenting classes that Newcomer and his wife had to take for about two months.

“One thing we found very interesting, my wife and I were the only couple that wanted to foster a child (during the classes), every single one of them was a relative or grandparent trying to get their daughters’ kids. So the opioid epidemic really affected a lot of that.”

“We need to get better at referring these women who are graveling with a lot of issues, one of them being a new mom and all the stress that comes with that, and ensuring that they have a right start for them and their baby,” said Caseman.