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In Brantford’s opioid nightmare, a community sees more hopeful days ahead

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Portrait of a user

Randy Roberts of Brantford, 54, has been an opioid user since he was 12 years old.Mr. Roberts adds a few drops of water to some crystal meth he will inject into his arm. Drugs have taken a heavy toll in his life and his family's. Last January, Mr. Roberts's daughter found his ex-wife dead of an overdose. 'She went to sleep and never got up,' he says.He is supportive of Brantford's rapid access addiction medicine clinic, or RAAM, which gets users on safe replacement medicine. But he says a detox centre and overdose prevention site are needed too.'I'm tired of having friends and family die,' Mr. Roberts says.

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The children left behind

Children are paying a heavy price for the drug-overdose epidemic. Some lose mothers or fathers to an overdose. Some go hungry or neglected because their parents suffer from addiction. Some are born addicted themselves because the mother used drugs while pregnant. Some have to recover from the trauma of having a parent OD and collapse.

At Brant Family and Children’s Services, they have seen it all. Andy Koster, the veteran head of the Brantford-based agency, which steps in when children are at risk at home, says the crisis is the worst he has seen in five decades. A quarter of the agency’s cases are related to opioid use. While other Ontario cities have been seeing declining numbers of children in child protection, Brant’s caseload has grown to around 440. It is running out of foster homes for children.

The stress on child-protection workers is enormous. When they go into houses to investigate, says Mr. Koster, “we often don’t know what we’re going to find.”

To give a sense of what the crisis is doing to children, Mr. Koster assembled seven women who work for his agency around a table at a family centre in a Brantford housing estate. They talked for more than an hour one recent afternoon, piling story on story.

In one case they handled, a mother and father both overdosed. In another, a six-year-old boy was present when his father ODed. In still another, police arrived to find a father passed out on the floor from an overdose with drug paraphernalia all around and a three-year-old screaming on the floor. The child, who had been visiting his father for the weekend, went into foster care.

The agency often finds used syringes outside its buildings. They found 10 on one recent day alone. Mr. Koster shows a picture of them, collected in a box.

With local rents rising and the wait for subsidized housing long, some families end up in rooming houses or seedy motels where drug dealing and sex work goes on.

Children who live in houses where drugs are being used often can’t cope with school, the women around the table say. Many suffer from attention deficit or other learning problems. Some cycle through four or five schools before Grade 3. They don’t show up for class or come wearing clothes that don’t suit the weather. In the households where they live, the drugs come first.

Some of the saddest cases are the babies, born to addicted mothers, who are suffering from drug withdrawal. Some spend months in hospital. One was so inconsolable that a foster mother had to hold him for 18 hours a day. Addicted mothers will visit their infants who have been taken away, but often they can’t cope. One mother kept nodding off as she held her child. She was on methadone, the substitute drug used in addiction treatment. Protection workers were afraid she would drop the baby.

“We are up against a huge beast of a problem,” said Annali Leeson, one of the agency’s managers. She says the dangerous opioid fentanyl “is everywhere, it’s in everything.”

Mr. Koster says these caring women are doing their best, but with the volume of cases they are getting, “people are just holding on here,” trying to make a difference.

An earlier version of this article said 25 people died of drug overdoses in Brant County in 2017. It should have said 25 people died in Brantford and surrounding Brant County.

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