JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – David and Jennifer Ditges have what some would call a perfect love story.
They can complete each other's sentences. They smile at each other with admiration. It's obvious they love each other.
"We met on the mission field in South Africa," Jennifer Ditges said.
They returned to Florida and began a life together. After getting married, the Ditgeses were ready to start a family.
"I want kids," Jennifer recalled saying to David.
She laughed as she repeated the memory, but the journey to have children was anything but funny for the couple.
"We thought it would be easy," Jennifer said.
They celebrated their first pregnancy, only to lose the child to a miscarriage.
Their devastation grew.
"All and all, we have lost 14 children," Jennifer said.
Fourteen moments of celebration for a new baby were cut down by a miscarriage. After consoling each other through a dark time of disappointment, they decided to become foster parents.
"Let's give love to someone who isn't getting love at home," Jennifer recalled of their mindset when they headed down that road.
The Ditgeses became foster parents through Jewish Family and Community Services.
Their first foster children were twin girls. They fell in love with the 18-month-old girls instantly.
"There's two of them," David said, laughing. "I thought we would start with one baby."
The girls are fraternal twins. They were a part of the adoption system because their mother and father were addicted to drugs. The baby girls, just beginning their lives, were being pulled away from their biological mother.
It was the cold, harsh reality of the opioid epidemic.
According to the Florida Department of Children and Families, the number of children being removed from their parents due to drug abuse has consistently climbed from 2012 to 2017.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates 92,000 children were removed from their homes in 2016 due to drug abuse. That makes up 34 percent of all removals in the country.
In Florida, the number of children removed from their homes due to parental drug abuse has increased every year.
Child removals for drug abuse
Source: Department of Children and Families
According to DCF data, the number of children removed has steadily climbed each year:
- 5,695 in 2012-13
- 6,056 in 2013-14
- 6,849 in 2014-15
- 7,530 in 2015-16
- 7,749 in 2016-17
The Ditgeses were overwhelmed and stunned by the number of children placed in foster care because of drug addiction.
"At first, you don't understand it," David said. "You would hope they could stop something like that for the sake of keeping (their) kids, but that addiction is just too much sometimes."
Though the Ditgeses are happy to be foster parents, they also hope the children's biological parents can overcome their addiction.
The Ditgeses officially became parents on their sixth wedding anniversary: Feb. 23, 2017.
That date was unplanned, but to them, it was a sign, or a confirmation, that their adoption was meant to be.
The Ditgeses are in the process of adopting two more children. Their forever family could soon have four children. As their dream of having a family comes true, they also dream for a peaceful life for their children.
"[I dream] that they would just feel loved," Jennifer said.