Drug epidemic leaves behind countless children learning to grow up without a parent

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Lily Bishop is a typical 8-year-old. She likes coloring, playing with her cousins and learning about the world. But Lily also has to learn how to live in a world without a father.

Daniel Bishop's story is one we've heard too often. He was a young man who sought relief from pain and quickly became addicted to prescription pills.

"He had a big heart. He really did. He was an amazing father," said Daniel's sister, Jamie Tranbarger. "Daniel was not a bad person. He didn't turn to street drugs, nor did he steal to get his fix. He was on prescription pain and anxiety medication."

When Daniel overdosed, he left Lily behind to be taken care of by her mother and other relatives. Now, she is one of the many Hoosier children left behind by the drug epidemic.

According to the latest Kids Count Report from the Indiana Youth Institute, drug overdoses now kill more Hoosiers than car crashes and gun violence combined. In 2017, 58% of children removed from their home by DCS were removed due to parental drug or alcohol abuse. That's almost double the 31% in 2013.

"We see so many kids right now in the system who have just extreme emotional and behavioral issues," said Tina Cloer. She's the President of the Children's Bureau, a non-profit which works with children in the welfare system.

Cloer showed us stockpiles of supplies ready for the next child pulled out of a home. Just four years ago, she said, she only needed a tenth of those supplies.

The trauma of being left behind

Unfortunately, the odds are stacked against these kids.

"Broken marriage. Work problems. They struggle educationally," said Cloer as she described the children who have lost a parent to drugs.

Research shows children of drug addicts are more likely to become addicts themselves. And even if they don't, the trauma of losing a parent will impact them in so many other ways.

"You end up with kids who grow up to be people who don't trust anybody," said Cloer.

Five-year-old Anthony has been through that trauma. His parents were in a car accident that severely injured his mom, and killed his dad. Anthony's father had prescription drugs in his system.

Anthony was just 18 months old.

"You might think 'Oh, that's a little young to understand,' but he had abandonment issues. He understood his mommy and daddy were gone," said Anthony's grandmother Debbie Bowman. She and husband Sam Bowman explained how Anthony worked overtime to control his environment as a result of losing his father.

"He was real clingy at first. He wouldn't let us go in any other room," she said.

Three years into living with his grandparents, Anthony is adjusting. The Bowmans even wrote a book titled "The Summer of Paintless Toenails" to help other grandparents raising grandchildren. But Sam Bowman admits, there were a lot of fears in the beginning.

"Where are we gonna get answers? Where are we gonna get resources? Where are we gonna get help? How do we know what to do?"

These are the same fears so many families are facing right now as they take on the task of raising the children of Indiana's opioid and heroin epidemic.

Not alone

In a strange bittersweet sort of way, Lily won't have to face the challenges of this life alone. Her 62-year old grandfather, James Bishop, is raising five children. One mother in jail and the other is dead.

"They should be here. You know," said James Bishop.

"You know, the epidemic, it's just crazy," said Tranbarger. "These kids are our future and they're what's left behind. And we can't let them follow down the same path."

After her brother's death, Tranbarger created a support group on Facebook called Lula's Love so others going through the same thing could share their pain and triumphs.

How can you help?

The children we featured all had relatives who were able to take care of them. However, so many kids don't and they wind up in the welfare system in need of foster families.

Right now, there is a shortage of foster families in Indiana. If you're interested in becoming a temporary family to a child left behind, you can fill out a form here: Interested in becoming a foster parent?

You can also reach out to The Villages of Indiana, Indiana's largest not-for-profit child and family services agency, at 1-800-874-6880.

If you cannot foster, but want to volunteer your time to help, consider becoming a CASA volunteer. CASA volunteers are trained to speak for abused and neglected children in court cases. You can learn more by calling 1-800-542-0813.

Nar-Anon Family Groups offer support to people who are impacted by the addiction of a family member or friend.

Narateen is a support group for teenagers with addicted parents and there are local meetings held across Central Indiana throughout the year.