By EILEEN MCCLORY
STAFF WRITER

Hancock County Juvenile Court Judge Kristen Johnson is worried about babies born with drugs in their systems.

She praises the efforts of local workers and agencies that help adults dealing with addiction, saying the local recovery community is incredible.

“With that said, I’m concerned about not just losing one generation but losing two generations,” she said. “Because we need to start focusing on these babies.”

As of Sept. 30, the juvenile court had handled 89 abuse and neglect cases this year, said Becky VanScoder, chief deputy clerk at the court. Those cases include newborns who tested positive for heroin, cocaine or other drugs in their blood.

The court handled a total of 40 abuse and neglect cases in all of 2017, meaning 2018 has already had a 122 percent increase in the number of such cases.

Johnson said it is possible for a baby to be born addicted, but not result in a court case. She only handles abuse and neglect cases if Child Protective Services is involved.

Johnson is concerned about the children she is seeing.

Babies born addicted to heroin are tested by Help Me Grow and Children’s Services at three and six months, she said. The babies mostly seem to test fine at both ages, but once they get into kindergarten, problems can appear.

Developmental delays, fine motor control issues, difficulties focusing and articulating needs and wants can all show up in kindergarten-age kids who were born with heroin in their blood.

It’s not clear why those traits are showing up.

There’s not a lot of research on kids born with addiction and what research there is remains inconclusive, Johnson said. The first babies who had any research done on them were born in 2010.

It’s also not clear if acting out by children is a result of an unstable home life with a parent addicted to drugs, or the result of exposure to the drugs themselves.

Johnson thinks the problem is at least partly the instability, which is why she is focusing on helping adoptive and foster parents, as well as family members who are taking care of addicts’ children.

“I think you give a kid a stable home life, they can almost overcome anything,” she said.

Total probate and juvenile court cases filed are up nearly 10 percent in 2018 from 2017, VanScoder said.

The total juvenile court caseload in 2018 was 1,009 cases filed through the end of September, VanScoder said.

Johnson said her staff is managing with the higher caseload, with clerks helping one another out. But they are looking to hire another full-time clerk, she said.

Johnson has also asked the county for a new juvenile and probate court building, which is estimated to cost between $2.7 million and $5 million to build. The current courtroom, she said, is too small and poses security risks.

The new court building is expected to be built with money from a quarter-percent sales tax that was imposed Thursday by the Hancock County commissioners.

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