America is in the grips of an opioid epidemic. Nationwide, heroin use has exploded by more than 500% over the last decade – a crisis largely-driven by the rampant – and often lax – prescription of opioid painkillers. As prescription drugs become harder to acquire, people switch to readily-available alternatives with a similar, albeit more extreme, effect: heroin and the closely-related (but far more potent) opioid fentanyl.
Substance Abuse Destroys Families
Devastating tragedies are the inevitable result. The proportion of fatal drug overdoses that can be attributed to heroin alone tripled between 2010 and 2015. At least 33,000 lives were claimed by opioids in 2015 alone. Neither this problem, nor its dramatic scope, are news, but the effect that the crisis has had on families and children has received less publicity.
New reports from Maine suggest that over 60% of the children who entered that state’s foster care system had been abused or neglected by parents who themselves were struggling with substance addiction. Many of these children have special needs, Portland-based CBS affiliate WGME reports. Some were born with complex substance-related medical disorders due to their parent’s drug abuse. Many struggle with addiction themselves. State Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew is now struggling to identify potential foster families for these vulnerable kids.
Last year, 376 Maine residents died of opioid overdoses, according to the Portland Press Herald. Fewer people died in car accidents. Maine has an extremely small foster care program. In 2015, only 905 children were taken into state custody.
Opioids Drive Foster Care Admissions
States with larger programs, however, are dealing with a similar problem. In fact, the total number of children entering foster care has risen precipitously over the last few years, after nearly a decade of dramatic declines. An estimated 428,000 children entered state custody over the course of 2015, the latest year for which government data is available. That was an 8% increase from the number in 2012.
The recent rise in foster care admissions can be attributed directly to opioid addiction, experts say. Nearly 1 in 3 children are removed from homes due to parental substance abuse, according to the New York Times editorial board. That proportion has been growing. Alongside neglect, parental drug abuse is now the leading reason why children are taken into state custody.
Coincidentally, the same proportion of foster care children, 1 in 3, are believed to have disabilities, from developmental delays to major neuromuscular disorders like cerebral palsy. Foster kids with special needs are more likely to experience mistreatment, placement and educational instability and institutionalization than their peers.
State Programs Strapped For Cash
Meanwhile, federal, state and local governments have consistently cut funding to child welfare programs, leaving most foster care systems unable to deal with the influx of kids who need safe homes. The state of Texas’ program is particularly deplorable. After being removed from their parents’ homes, dozens of children and teens are now being warehoused in state offices, the Texas Tribune reports.
Just this week, Florida Governor Rick Scott officially labeled the state’s opioid epidemic a “public health emergency,” which allows state health experts to tap additional federal funds for prevention initiatives, along with addiction treatment and recovery programs. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan made a similar decision in March. That state has been hit hardest by the introduction of fentanyl, a synthetic drug (about 10- to 50-times as lethal as heroin) that dealers mix in to improve potency – usually unbeknownst to users.
Hopefully, these federal dollars will go not only to addiction prevention and treatment measures, but to the foster care programs that so desperately need money. How hopeful should we be? The crack-cocaine epidemic of the 80s and 90s puts the current opioid problem into sobering relief. During that earlier crisis, foster care admissions skyrocketed, too, but state legislatures acted too slowly to reduce the damage.