Last year, The Enquirer's "Seven Days of Heroin" introduced readers to an 8-year-old Hamilton County girl staying in a psychiatric hospital in Youngstown. She ended up there a year after she found her mom semiconscious and slumped over the toilet and her dad overdosed on heroin in their Colerain Township home. She is now living in rural south central Ohio.
The girl, her foster sister and her foster mother pull up the gravel drive toward the double-wide trailer with beige vinyl siding. They're half an hour late for the appointment with the girl's caseworker, Justine Harrison.
Harrison talks with the foster father in the yard while they wait. Several dogs and cats mill around on the hot, humid June morning. The pavement on the narrow, curving road that leads to the secluded trailer – there's not another home in sight – is still wet from a morning rain.
"She wants to be the center of attention," the foster father tells Harrison.
The girl, thin and tall for 9 years old, jumps out of the car and announces her urgent need to use the bathroom. She wears blue jean shorts and a sleeveless black top. She runs past a row of bicycles, up three wooden steps, across the porch and pulls open the screen door with an efficiency that shows familiarity.
The girl, who cannot be named, has been in the foster home since the middle of October. Harrison drove her there upon the girl's release from the Belmont Pines Psychiatric Hospital in Youngstown. She was placed in the hospital June 29, 2017, after trying to drown her then-foster sister in a pool.
"Homicidal ideations," her file reads.
In layman's terms: "She has no coping skills. The only coping skills modeled for her were getting high with heroin. She's a product of her environment," is how Kacie Rolfes, a Hamilton County Children's Services supervisor, described the girl after interviewing her in Youngstown.
An Enquirer reporter was there when the girl met with social workers from Hamilton County and Belmont Pines in a conference room there for 55 minutes on the afternoon of July 11, 2017. She'd stay at Belmont Pines for 112 days at a total cost of $44,879.52 to Hamilton County taxpayers.
The number of children in custody of Hamilton County Children's Services increased by two-thirds from 2014 to 2017, to 3,556. Placements are in foster homes, group homes, other institutions, independent living for older children and with relatives – otherwise known as kinship care. The opioid epidemic is the major cause of the surge, the agency says.
When the girl moved from the Youngstown hospital to Lawrence County on Oct. 19, she quickly took to her new surroundings. On her first night, she got up from her bed and slept with one of the family dogs on the living room couch. Twelve days later, she wore a blue Elsa gown for Halloween.
• • •
On the muggy June late morning, she steps back out onto the covered wooden porch.
Harrison asks about plans for the summer. The foster mother says the family, which now includes three other foster children, has already visited Waves of Fun pool in Winfield, West Virginia.
Rain begins to fall again. The foster parents, Harrison and the girl walk inside the trailer. The man holds the screen door open. "Thanks, Dad," she says. "I mean, you're my father."
As he walks through the living room dominated by a large-screen television and toward the kitchen, the foster father says the girl wants to call them dad and mom.
"We want to wait until it's finalized," he says of the adoption. "It really hurts otherwise. The bond is already there. We just want to wait until it's official."
Harrison and the foster mother sit in chairs on one side of the table.
The girl climbs into the chair at the head of the table nearest Harrison. She sits on her knees, puts her elbows on the table and rests her chin on the palms of her hands. The caseworker takes out adoption paperwork and begins asking the girl questions about her likes and dislikes, many of which Harrison already knows but wants to confirm.
Favorite subject: writing. The girl, who was held back one grade, made the honor roll every quarter in second grade in her new school.
"Do you like sports?" Harrison asks.
"Soccer," she says.
"She's going to try cheerleading next year," her foster mother says.
Music? A little bit of everything, leaning toward the country that she hears her foster parents play.
TV show? "Victorious" – Nickelodeon reruns about an aspiring female singer who attends a performing arts high school.
Movie? "Black Panther" and "Batman."
"She wants me to do the bathroom in Batman," the foster mother says.
Food? "Pancakes and sausage," the girl says. "I hate cheese."
What does she want to be when she grows up: "A police officer with a German shepherd."
Animal? "I have a dog and a cat. Her dog, a 2-year-old female Rottweiler named Havoc, sits in a cage near the kitchen table.
The girl steps down from her chair, kneels beside the cage and reaches between the bars to pet the dog, who stops moving and barking upon her touch.
"That's my baby," she says in babytalk.
The girl is back up in her chair as quickly as she got down.
"I knew that," Harrison says. "I didn't even have to ask."
When the adoption is final, the girl wants to dye the tips of her wavy brown hair purple. She has a new pair of Air Jordan shoes for school in August that are purple, black and blue. She jumps down from the kitchen chair, runs into her room and comes back with the sneakers so Harrison can see them.
Show and tell.
The foster mother painted the girl's room purple shortly after she moved in. Her new bicycle outside is pink and purple. The girl says her favorite pastime is playing on her tablet, which is purple and loaded with games and music. Her favorite singers are Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande.
"Music helps you calm down, doesn't it?" Harrison asks.
"Yes," she says.
Before her discharge from the psychiatric hospital in Youngstown, the girl was rediagnosed with chronic post-traumatic stress disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and disinhibited attachment disorder of childhood – all the result of severe neglect in the birth home. The girl can describe in scientific detail how her mom and dad prepared heroin to shoot up.
"Riding around in the car with mom and dad while they used was normal," Harrison says later.
At the kitchen table, the caseworker asks the foster mom, "How is her behavior?"
"A little worse than it has been," she says. "She's been saying mean things to the other kids."
The girl, who sees a therapist every other week and takes medication, has deep-seated psychological issues. The foster mother says she and her husband are aware of the girl's challenges and are committed to her long-term healing process.
In her new home, the girl is given choices – represented by all of the purple – and yet also has limits placed on her. She receives consistent discipline, say the foster parents and Harrison.
What chores do you do? "The litter box, dust, sweep and pick up outside." She loses privileges to the above-ground pool in the yard if she fails to put away her goggles and beach towel.
Harrison flips another page in her folder and asks the girl, "Are you …
"A very fast learner," her foster mother says.
Does she keep her room clean?
"Yes," the girl says.
"But only her room," the foster mother adds.
"I love my room. I never had my own room before. In the hospital, there were three other people in the room."
• • •
The girl and her foster mother have created what her foster-care agency refers to as a life book.
It's part photo album and biography of the girl with her foster family.
The girl runs to the kitchen table with her foster family book. She wears dark plastic-rimmed glasses that are oversized on her narrow olive-tone face.
She props up on her knees, opens the book so her foster mother and Harrison can see each laminated page. She leans over the book, looking at it upside down, to narrate.
"This is my class picture," the girl says. "I was sick that day."
She turns the page to reveal a group photo of her foster family. She is in that one.
There she is in her Halloween costume. Next page: her award from school as an accelerated reader. Another page: the girl on Christmas morning wearing the identical shirt of her new doll. Still another: her asleep on the couch beside two of the family's dogs, one dog looking protectively into the camera.
She turns to the next page. The girl is combing the mane of a horse in one photo and sitting atop it in another. She has undergone one session of horse therapy, designed to decrease her stress and anxiety levels and create a calm environment in which she learns new skills.
"I brush her, I cleaned the horseshoes," she says. The biggest lesson she has learned, she adds, is "not to go up behind them, so they don't kick you."
Harrison says later, "She has fit with that family really well. She gets one-on-one time with foster mom she has never gotten before."
The girl brings out a notebook in which she draws or writes journal entries or stories.
She reads a story aloud: Once upon a time: There was a castle. With a princess inside. She had long brown hair and brown eyes.
She writes of a prince named Brian, a 10-year-old boy who lives nearby.
The girl writes of the prince and princess living in that castle, which is surrounded by a deep moat.
She writes of having two pet dragons, which she has named Justine after her caseworker and Julie after her therapist.
And everything is protected by the fairy godmother.
And the story ends with the girl mentioning her foster mother – her fairy godmother – by her first name.
• • •
The girl takes her notebook and first life book back into her room and comes out carrying her second life book, the one dedicated to her birth family.
Her foster mom put it together for the girl.
Asked why she assembled it, including downloaded images from the birth mother's Facebook page, the foster mom says, "I don't know. They're part of her. Why not embrace the birth family?"
"This is me and my actual daddy," the girl says as she turns the pages. "Me and my mommy. She is so beautiful. Me and my two brothers. My nephew and niece. My mom's mom."
The family resemblance is clear. They have dark complexions, thick wavy hair and big brown eyes. Her two brothers are adults and live out of state, Harrison says.
"She wants to stay in contact with them," the caseworker says.
The day she found her birth parents in the bathroom, another adult in the house called the police, and the police called Children's Services. Her parents temporarily lost custody. The mother began a cycle of completing residential addiction treatment programs and relapsing. Her father continued a pattern of criminal behavior – burglary, receiving stolen property – to support his drug addiction.
Harrison took the girl to see her birth father in early 2017. He lived in an apartment with no heat. They kept on their coats.
"When we left, he was standing in the middle of the road waving," Harrison says.
The girl's birth father died of an overdose that March. He was 41. Cocaine, heroin and acetyl fentanyl were found in his system.
Harrison broke the news to her.
The girl's behavior worsened after her father's death. "More anger and frustration," the caseworker says.
• • •
Children's Services has gone to court to get custody of the girl.
A second hearing was held in mid-May in Hamilton County Juvenile Court. Harrison testified that the last time she spoke to the mother, she was using methamphetamine and living with her dealer in western Hamilton County.
The birth mother talks on the phone with the foster mother and has spoken to the girl, as well. Those conversations are supervised. The birth mother used to say she was going to find a foster home nearby so they could see each other.
The girl would get off the phone with her birth mother and chop her hair with scissors, Harrison says.
About 40 percent of Hamilton County children removed from their parents are placed outside the county because of a shortage of families and facilities. Most are in adjacent counties but more distant placements occasionally take place when it's a good fit with foster parents interested in adopting.
The birth mother did not appear at either custody hearing. In court, the birth mother's attorney said she realizes she is unable to care for her daughter at this time but doesn't want to permanently give up her parental rights.
All parties are now waiting for the magistrate's decision.
• • •
The girl, says Harrison later, has told her that she wants to be adopted, especially if her birth mother "can't stop doing bad things and living with a bad man."
"I want a family," the girls says while sitting at the kitchen table in her foster home.The next court date is not yet scheduled. Harrison and her Children's Services supervisor say they expect the magistrate to grant the county full custody, which will allow the proposed adoption to move forward. If granted, the birth mother will have an opportunity to oppose it.
The girl is prepared for her adoption hearing. She already knows what she is going to wear: a high-neck sleeveless black dress she has had since November but not worn.
She brings the dress, unwrinkled on a blue plastic hanger, into the kitchen.
"Very mature," her foster mother says.
The girl returns to her room to hang the dress in her closet and brings out her notebook.
Part of the adoption process involves changing the child's surname on her birth certificate. The names of the biological parents are removed, and the adoptive parents are listed as mother and father.
The girl wants to change her first and middle names, too. She has written names she likes in her notebook and eliminated them from contention by drawing a line through them.
She liked Victoria for a while but has crossed that out. At this time, she is settled on Arielle Jade for her first two names.
• • •
The girl walks outside onto the porch. To her right is outdoor furniture, three beach towels hang over the wooden railing. To her left is a round metal patio table covered with her foster father's tools.
Farther to her left, off the porch, as she faces the road, are a trampoline, the swimming pool and a whitewashed garage. Beyond the yard is a creek where the copperheads are.
She takes a deep breath and says, "I love living in the country."
She is asked about now having a normal 9-year-old's life.
"I always was normal. I always will be normal," the girl says. "I am happy. This is fun. I get to play in the rain in my bathing suit."
She hops off the porch and down the wooden steps without missing a beat. She squats in the yard on one knee beside her cat and begins to scratch its head behind the ears. The cat – she got her from her foster parents as a Christmas present and named her Coco because she's the color of hot chocolate – returns the affection, rubbing against the girl's leg.
She looks up at her foster mother and smiles. The woman smiles back.
Follow Mark Curnutte on Twitter @MarkCurnutte