Foster families needed for drug-exposed babies in Mahoning Co. - WFMJ.com News weather sports for Youngstown-Warren Ohio

Foster families needed for drug-exposed babies in Mahoning Co.

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YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio -

One of the tragedies of the opioid epidemic is the babies who are exposed to these drugs before they are born. Now Mahoning County Children Services needs more foster families to care for some of these newborns.

"I wouldn't change anything," said Suzanne Balestrino of Poland.

Balestrino feels called to open her heart and home to foster children.

"Just seeing the babies through all of that and watching them smile and feeling safe- that's a huge reward and I feel really blessed that I am able to do this," she said.

A blessing that she and her husband Larry have shared with 26 foster children and ten of their own kids including six who are adopted. 

They have been foster parents for 22 and a half years and counting.

The majority of the babies they care for are exposed to drugs in the womb.

"It's sad that they're so tiny and they really didn't have a choice and this is how they are. So we just try to love them and make them feel safe," Balestrino explained.

Mahoning County Children Services has seen a 33 percent increase in the number of children born testing positive for drugs during the first half of this year.

These newborns are then placed with relatives or foster parents.

Jennifer Kollar, Mahoning Children Services Public Information Officer, said that there is a tremendous need for more foster families.

"In general we're having a shortage for foster parents not only in Mahoning County but across the state. Every sister county I can tell you we're all vying for more foster families but now especially you need to have foster families who are able to accommodate and adapt to the needs of an infant who are our most vulnerable who have been exposed to drugs and have to deal with withdrawal symptoms and bonding," Kollar explained.

A challenge is finding people who can provide around-the-clock care.

"A foster parent who wants to caregive to a child or an infant has to either be at home to accommodate that child, because a child cannot go into daycare until 6 weeks, or have a substitute caregiver in the home while the foster parent is out to work," Kollar said.

Balestrino and her husband work opposite shifts, so one of them is also with the kids.

Children services connects foster parents to specialized training on how to help these babies during important months. 

Dr. Linda Cooper, a neonatologist with Akron Children's Hospital Mahoning Valley, said that the symptoms they see in the hospital include increased crying, restlessness, difficulty eating, tremors, loose bowel movements, increased respiratory rate, and increased body temperature.  

"If they are having signs and symptoms of withdrawal we have some special procedures or care that we give them which really includes feeding them as often as possible because oftentimes feeding is part of their therapy. These babies have a great need to suck and to eat so sometimes they can be voracious eaters if they are able to eat. Sometimes they aren't able to eat but we give them a lot of feeding. We have the parents or the nurses hold them, snuggle with them, cuddle them, we will swaddle them," explained Dr. Cooper.

The security blanket that the Balestrinos have provided has left a lasting impression.

"One little girl that we truly fell in love with and she was really fragile like I learned a lot from her and I still get a Christmas card from her every year. So it has been kind of cool that she's now off to college and she still sends me a Christmas card. It's kind of nice," described Balestrino.

Another side effect of the opioid crisis is that children can linger in foster care longer, according to Kollar.

"Children come into foster care and then might be reunified with the family and then the family relapses and then they end up back in foster care. Sometimes these children are lingering longer in foster care because of the whole cycle of addiction, recovery, relapse, and it goes on and on and on," Kollar explained.

If you are interested in becoming a foster parent, call Mahoning County Children Services at (330) 941-8888.

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