CHARLESTON – After drugs take their parents away, children often look for their own way out.

During legislative meetings last week, Jeremiah Samples, deputy secretary for the state Department of Health and Human Resources, told lawmakers that 482 kids in state custody were reported as runaways in 2018.

"A lot of times, the child is running back to their parents," he said.

Samples said, during a Joint Committee Meeting on Children and Families, that West Virginia currently has about 7,000 children in state custody. That includes foster care, as well as other placements, such as emergency shelter or kinship care, meaning in the care of relatives.

He noted that West Virginia has the highest per capita rate of children in state custody in the United States, a child welfare crisis driven by the addiction epidemic.

“The fentanyl and gabapentin issue hit the streets and we started seeing parents dying with a needle in their arm, and their kid right beside them," he said. "It exploded the child welfare system in a way that, well, we’re still recovering from.”

About 83 percent of open child abuse/neglect cases involve drugs, and 52 percent of removals are due to drug addiction, he said.

Samples said that since 2013, there has been a 67 percent increase in the number of children in state custody in West Virginia, compared to an 11 percent increase nationally.

DHHR defines a runaway youth as one who has left placement without permission for 24 hours or more.

In 2018, 482 kids ran away – that's equal to about 14 percent of the total number of kids in state custody. There were 791 runaway incidents, meaning some kids ran away more than once.

He said each year, about 10 to 20 kids run away then age out of state custody and are never found.

Samples said they are typically running from group residential care or emergency shelters.

There were 72 active runaways as of a report compiled Sept. 12.

So far in 2019, the highest number missing at any one time was 95, on June 3, Samples said.

"To have 95 kids that are missing at a point in time is gut-wrenching," he said.

From Dec. 28, 2018 to Sept. 12, 2019, there were 651 incidents, so Samples noted "the problem is getting worse."

Michelle Dean, program manager for DHHR's Bureau for Children and Families, said DHHR is working on a "much more centralized mechanism for tracking” and "creating a system that allows us to actually go out and do those deep dive investigations into finding and locating these youth."

Senator Patricia Rucker, R- Jefferson and co-chairwoman of the committee, suggested fingerprinting children who enter state custody to assist police in finding them if they run away.

Rucker also proposed a subcommittee to work on the issue.

Delegate Ruth Rowan, R-Hampshire and co-chairwoman of the committee, assigned committee members Senator Rollan Roberts, R-Raleigh; Senator Mike Romano, D-Harrison; Delegate Terri Sypolt, R-Preston; and Delegate Cindy Lavender-Bowe, D-Greenbrier, as well as Rucker and herself.

Email: ebeck@register-herald.com and follow on Twitter @3littleredbones

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