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The list below shows the issues affecting the 2,220 families with allegations of child abuse or neglect investigated by Sonoma County Child Protective Services in 2016

Alcohol/drug 42%

Mental health 25%

Domestic violence 13%

Unsafe or no housing 9%

Sonoma County Child Protection Hotline: 707-565-4304

To learn more, click here.

The number of child abuse or neglect cases in Sonoma County rose 17 percent last year, with drug abuse and mental health issues playing an increasing role in destabilizing at-risk families, according to county data.

The 569 confirmed cases of abuse or neglect last year — up from 487 in 2015 — nearly matched the county’s five-year high. The number of children removed from their homes and placed into foster care rose from 208 in 2015 to 263 last year.

Drug and alcohol abuse were a factor in 42 percent of the 2,220 cases investigated last year by the county’s Child Protective Services. In 2012, only 29 percent of abuse or neglect cases involved drugs or alcohol.

County officials say the increases occur at a time when the county’s most at-risk families are struggling with obstacles such the rise in opioid use and the stress and strain caused by the county’s high cost of housing. Other hardship factors for at-risk families include unemployment or underemployment, and mental health problems, said Katie Greaves, section manager at the county’s Family Youth and Children services.

“The more of those issues you have, the harder it is for parents to provide stability and the basic needs that children need to thrive,” Greaves said.

That vast majority of allegations CPS investigates are related to neglect rather than abuse, said Greaves, adding that such cases are often at “the intersection” of substance abuse, poverty and mental health. She said the county is currently doing a study of cases to understand what many social workers have been encountering in cases they investigate — the abuse of multiple substances including opioids, methamphetamine, alcohol and marijuana.

“Opioids are definitely the common thread we see,” Greaves said.

Marena Koukis, a psychologist who specializes in alcohol and drug abuse, said families where a parent has an addiction face challenges that are hard but not impossible to overcome. Koukis, coordinator of the county’s Drug Free Babies program and Drug Dependency Court, said chronic drug use can alter “the way a brain works.” Parents crippled by addiction do not have the presence of mind they would if sober, she said.

“Our focus is really to treat it like any other disease that’s a chronic disorder,” Koukis said. “The risk of child abuse or maltreatment would be increased if there are drugs or alcohol abuse.”

Greaves said the growing scourge of opioids is of particular concern in Sonoma County.

According to the latest public health review of opioid use updated last year, 126,000 county residents — 25 percent of population — had an opioid prescription. Of those, a quarter had four or more opioid prescriptions, and 5 percent of those had prescriptions from four or more prescribers.

The report found 524 people in the county identified specifically as “doctor shoppers” — patients who obtained opioid prescriptions from four or more prescribers and four or more pharmacies. Also, the local rate of emergency room visits for accidental opioid overdose increased 73 percent from 2009-2011 to 2012-2014, from 10 to 17.3 per 100,000 people — 61 percent higher than the statewide rate.

Jane Wilson, section manager at the county’s Family Youth and Children services, said each call made to the county’s Child Protection Hotline is evaluated by a trained social worker to determine the level of gravity of allegations.

The list below shows the issues affecting the 2,220 families with allegations of child abuse or neglect investigated by Sonoma County Child Protective Services in 2016

Alcohol/drug 42%

Mental health 25%

Domestic violence 13%

Unsafe or no housing 9%

Sonoma County Child Protection Hotline: 707-565-4304

To learn more, click here.

In 2016, there were a total of 5,516 hotline reports made. Of these, 2,220 were investigated.

County officials said that most of the 2,220 cases were resolved with community-based support services that allowed children to remain safely with their parents. In 2016, Family Youth and Children services spent $724,000 on “pathways to prevention” that offered four levels of intervention to prevent the need for foster care.

These range from parent education and housing support to more severe court-ordered “family maintenance” services that provide a family with six to 12 months of intensive social work and support. Only 7 percent of the 2,220 cases investigated by CPS resulted in a child being removed from a family.

Greaves and Wilson said another issue affecting many families is the high cost of housing in Sonoma County, which in some cases results in children living with multiple families or unfamiliar or unrelated people. Sometimes families are living in substandard housing with hazardous conditions.

The high cost of housing puts at-risk families under greater financial strain, making it more difficult to provide adequate food or other necessities, Greaves said.

“For children who live in these conditions, their environment can be unpredictable,” Greaves said, adding that in some cases children are not getting enough sleep, missing school and not receiving proper medical or dental care.

“The high cost of living places an extreme stress on the family so that when they’re putting such a large portion of their income on housing, it doesn’t leave a lot of resources for other things that are necessary for healthy family functioning, such as child care transportation, utilities,” Greaves said.

The county said local residents are needed to bolster the community-based system aimed at reducing or addressing cases of child abuse and neglect. People can volunteer at county emergency shelters, the Valley of the Moon Children’s Home or other organizations that work with youth.

“Our deep-seated belief is that families are good and children need to be with their parents, but they have challenges that get in the way — that’s our starting point,” Greaves said.

County officials say there’s also a pressing need for more people in the local community to become foster parents who can temporarily care for children who are removed from their homes for their own safety.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @renofish.

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