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Foster Parents Help Family Torn Apart By Addiction Reunite

Stephanie Colombini
WUSF Public Media
Foster parents Elizabeth and Kate Dumbaugh stand on either side of their friend Katherine Mullins, whose son Aiden was recently in the Dumbaughs' care while she recovered from her heroin addiction.

As Health News Florida reported last week, the opioid crisis in Manatee and Sarasota Counties is putting a strain on their foster care system. But the situation isn't entirely bleak. Now we'll hear from one mother whose relationship with her son's foster parents helped her reunify her family and overcome her addiction.

Elizabeth and Kate Dumbaugh are having some coffee in their Sarasota home when their dog starts barking madly to let them know someone is at the door. There’s an exchange of hugs and excited hellos as they welcome their friend, 31-year-old Katherine Mullins, inside.

This friendship has an unusual beginning. The Dumbaughs are foster parents with the Safe Children Coalition, which oversees foster care for Florida’s 12th Judicial Circuit, which includes Sarasota, Manatee and De Soto counties. Mullins' son Aiden was placed in their care after she overdosed on heroin last fall. Aiden was only 8 months old.

“You know, it was heartbreaking, especially because I have two other children that got granted permanent guardianship with their aunt and uncle, and I haven't seen them for seven years,” Mullins said.

Mullins, who spent most of her life in Manatee County before recently moving to Sarasota, has battled with addiction since she was 15 years old. For a while, she was taking a prescription opioid treatment called Subutex, but eventually ran out.

"So I was going through withdrawals,” Mullins said. “I guess I had too much pride – I don't know what came over me – and the only thing I could find was heroin."

But once Aiden was removed from her home, Mullins had a wake-up call. Though back on Subutex for the time being, she stopped taking heroin.

Brena Slater, Vice President of the Safe Children Coalition, said that's a great achievement, but warns the real challenge is staying clean.

Federal standards expect one-in-ten kids to end up back in the foster system after they have reunified with their parents. But Slater said the risk of that happening is significantly higher when parents have histories of addiction.

"So with our substance abuse families, we really are trying to give them as many supports possible so that doesn't happen,” she said. “You have got to get better and stay better."

As part of her case management plan, Mullins had to take random drug tests and attend regular Narcotics Anonymous meetings. She found a steady job and lives with her uncle – the only family member she feels she can rely on for support.

At times, Mullins said she felt bored and isolated without the usual chaos of chasing her next high. But one thing made all the difference.

Shortly after Aiden went into foster care at the end of September, Mullins got a text from the Dumbaughs.

"[The text said] ‘What do you want Aiden to be for Halloween?’ Mullins jaw drops and she clutches her heart. “I was like, you asked me that? Thank you! Well…"

They stayed on the phone and picked out a pumpkin costume for Aiden, and things only went up from there. After the period of once-a-week supervised visits was over, the Dumbaughs began including Mullins in just about everything they did with Aiden. If they went to a park, they would shoot her a text.

"Katherine would be there in like 30 seconds!" said Kate Dumbaugh, as the women laughed around the dining room table and reminisced.

Mullins said their friendship was critical to her recovery.

"For them to be so open and willing to understand that I still needed to be the person who needs to make decisions in [Aiden’s] life and everything, it really helped me want to strive hard,” she said. “They've just been awesome through the whole process."

Elizabeth Dumbaugh said while there are certainly some cases where a foster parent would be right to keep the kids away from their birth parents, for the most part, everyone deserves a second chance.

“So the best thing, if you love the child, is to help the family to heal,” Dumbaugh said.

And that is what the Dumbaughs seem to have done.

Parents are typically given one year to finish their case plans. Mullins did it in about half that time. She and Aiden officially reunited in June.

The Safe Children Coalition will monitor the family's progress for another six months in the hopes of ensuring Mullins and her son stay together for good.

Florida Matters is talking about foster care in the region next week. Hear the discussion Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. on WUSF 89.7 or online at wusfnews.org.

I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.
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