The drug addiction epidemic that is killing 142 Americans every day is having another, less visible but significant impact. Drug and alcohol misuse is overloading the foster care system nationwide with children taken from the homes of drug users.
Data from the US Department of Health and Human Services show that from October 2012 to September 2015, as addiction surged, the number of kids entering the foster system rose 8 percent. Experts expect that the numbers will continue to climb. As recently as five years ago, US Social Services observed a 6.5 percent drop in the number of children in foster care from 2009 to 2012.
In opioid-ravaged Ohio half of the children taken into protective custody in 2015 were removed from their homes because of a parental drug addiction, according to the Public Children Services Association of Ohio.
In neighboring Kentucky—equally hard hit by the opioid epidemic—the number of children in foster care rose from 6,000 in 2012 to 8,000 in 2015, with about a third of them entering the system because of their parents’ substance misuse, according to KVC Kentucky, a behavioral health and child welfare organization in Lexington.
In Massachusetts, “overall, care and protection cases—used by the Department of Children and Families to remove children from allegedly dangerous living conditions—have increased 56 percent since fiscal 2012,” according to statistics reviewed by MassLive.
Other states have registered similar increases. The rising number of child removals is beginning to overwhelm the system. Some areas can no longer find enough foster parents to cope with the situation.
Creating the Next Generation of Addicts
Chronic separation from a parent or other caregiver can be devastating to a child. Depending on the exact circumstances, the child will experience the separation as traumatic. Traumatizing the children of people with substance use disorder is likely to perpetuate the addiction crisis. Trauma and addiction are strongly correlated. Many people with addiction self-medicate deep pain arising from trauma.
A second factor to consider is the strong genetic component of addiction. According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, “genetics make up 50 percent of the risk for alcohol and drug dependence.”
A recent study suggests 11 percent of all children live in families where one or more parents misuse alcohol or drugs. Many of those kids will have a genetic predisposition and they are exposed to severe environmental stress. Some witness their parents overdosing in their presence.
Separating children from their parents under these circumstances amounts to further traumatizing children with genetic risk factors who have already been traumatized by the substance use of their parents. Of course, leaving them with caregivers in active addiction is not an acceptable option.
Finding more foster parents can only be a temporary solution at best. People with substance use disorders need better access to comprehensive, evidence-based addiction treatment including therapy involving all affected family members. The nation needs a comprehensive plan to fight the addiction epidemic, otherwise secondary repercussions like the growing generation of children orphaned by opiates will have a lasting impact. Many of them could end up numbing their emotional pain with drugs and alcohol.