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What Can Be Done? How the Opioid Crisis is Increasing the Number of Kids in Foster Care

Here’s the headline: the opioid crisis in the United States is clearly affecting kids in this country. Last year, an infant girl died of starvation in her crib. Both of parents had overdosed on heroin a few days before, leaving no one to take care of the baby. This is a devastating news story, and unfortunately a reflection of the reality of the opioid crisis in this country. As the number of American adults addicted to opioids continues to rise, so does the number of kids in foster care in the United States.

How Are the Opioid Crisis and Foster Care Connected?

“This a replay of what we saw with the meth crisis. … We’re seeing huge rates of children going into a system with limited capacity.” ~ Christine Grella, professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA More than 64,000 Americans died as a direct result of a drug overdose last year, and the numbers only continue to rise. The opioid crisis in the United States is a clear and present danger not only to the adults who suffer from substance use disorders, but also entire families. According to multiple reports, the number of children in the foster care system jumped substantially in the last few years. Between 2012 and 2015, the national number of children in foster care jumped by 8 percent. Some experts point to the opioid crisis as the major culprit behind this drastic change. So how are the opioid crisis and the number of children in foster care connected? And what can be done about it? We certainly don’t have all the answers, but we can get the conversation going at the very least, as well as provide addiction resources. If you have some insight, feel free to leave a comment in the discussion below.

Understanding the Opioid Epidemic in the United States

To understand how the opioid use disorder crisis in the United States has affected the number of children in foster care, we first need to understand the opioid epidemic itself. Here’s the most striking statistic: drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death for United States citizens under the age of 50. Accidental deaths due to drug overdose are now greater than deaths due to guns and car accidents. They are also greater than the number of deaths each year due to H.I.V. during the peak of the epidemic. Around 1 in 50 deaths in the United States are drug-related. “Opioid overdoses have claimed more than 300,000 lives in the last 15 years, including some 33,000 in 2015 alone. But those numbers do not tell the full horror of this epidemic, which has devastated the lives of countless children whose parents have succumbed to addiction to prescription painkillers and other opiates.” ~ The New York Times’ Editorial Board It is also important to understand that the opioid crisis does not just have to do with heroin and street-level synthetic opioids. In fact, as the New York Times reports, the opioid epidemic is actually rooted in prescription opioids.

The Root of the Opioid Crisis: Addictive Drugs and a Vicious Cycle

After becoming hooked on prescription opioids, people may turn to cheaper (and more volatile) opioids like fentanyl and heroin. While overdose deaths from prescription painkillers have not risen much since 2011, many experts hold that the rising overdose rate for fentanyl and heroin are rooted in this overprescription of opioids. These frightening opioid addiction statistics are where the real issue lies. The opioid crisis in the United States has one major underlying factor: the addictive nature of opioids in any form. From prescription painkillers to heroin, opioid drugs are inherently addictive. It’s not as if people choose to get hooked on these dangerous drugs. More often than not, people begin by taking prescription opioids before moving on to heroin, or drugs laced with fentanyl. Just as this is where the major root of the opioid crisis lies, this is also most likely where the solution to the vicious cycle of addiction lies. Whether the source of the opioid crisis is from prescription opioids or from drug dealers pushing heroin on the streets, one thing remains the same: the crisis will not be reversed until we can bring effective opioid addiction treatment and work at keeping families together in this country.

How the Opioid Crisis is Increasing the Number of Kids in Foster Care

The opioid crisis in this country is not necessarily new; prescriptions for opioid drugs have been on the rise since the late 1990s. However, multiple newspapers have recently reported on the impact of the opioid epidemic on foster care in the United States. One story from PBS leads with the narrative of Raven Mosser, a woman who almost lost her son right after giving birth to him. Mosser had been addicted to opioids for years, and faced an uphill battle to get clean. Her kids had to enter the foster system for a period while Mosser got her life together. “In Kentucky, 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 abuse.” ~ PBS NewsHour These drastically rising numbers are not only due to opioid overdose deaths. More often than not, children are placed in the foster care system when one or both parents are deemed unable to provide adequate care because of their substance use disorder. In fact, one opioid addiction and foster care statistic from 2015 shows that substance abuse was a factor in removing children from the home in about a third of the cases handled by social workers that year. “State child welfare systems have reported that they are experiencing an increase in families coming to their attention with substance use problems impacting their ability to safely parent.” ~ National Advisory Committee on Rural Health and Human Services Clearly, there is a link between opioid addiction and foster care in the United States. So what can be done about it?

Addressing the Issue: Treating Opioid Addiction and Avoiding Foster Care

One approach to addressing both the issue of opioid addiction and the rising number of children in foster care is to bring the two issues together. For example, Kentucky has a program called START – standing for Sobriety Treatment and Recovery Teams. The program prioritizes two things: family preservation and opioid addiction treatment. The START program has social workers visit at-risk homes frequently, provides parents with child care and transportation vouchers, and offers director addiction mentorship for parents in recovery. Under the Kentucky model, when child protection specialists learn a child is at risk, authorities specifically assess whether substance abuse could be a factor. If so, the parent is fast-tracked into treatment and assigned a “recovery team,” which coordinates among agencies such as children’s aid, mental health, social services and recovery mentors.” ~ PBS NewsHour The model works arguably because it brings the two issues together. Instead of isolating opioid addiction and parenthood, the program recognizes that substance use disorders are a huge factor in being able to parent well. Not only that, but the model also recognizes that opioid addiction can be effectively treated. Thankfully, stories like Raven Mosser’s don’t always end with children placed permanently in the foster care system. After several rounds of treatment and relapse, Mosser has now been sober for two years. She is caring for her four children at home.

The Signs and Symptoms of Opioid Addiction

Part of addressing the opioid epidemic in 2017 is recognizing what opioid addiction actually looks like. First of all, there are physical signs of opiate use in adults. These physical signs of opiate use include euphoria, sedation, confusion, slowed breathing, loss of consciousness, and even constipation. The signs of opiate use in adults do not always necessarily indicate that addiction is present. However, if prescription opioids are being used in any way other than how they are prescribed, this already qualifies as prescription opioid abuse. Similarly, the opioid addiction statistics from 2017 show us that there are many other opiate drugs on the list to be abused. The most common of these are fentanyl and heroin. Whether someone is using synthetic opioids from the street, or abusing prescription opioids at home, there are some classic signs of opiate addiction to be on the look out for. Some of the classic signs of opiate addiction include:

  • Dramatic shifts in mood.
  • Shopping around for multiple opioid prescriptions
  • Sudden social withdrawal, or showing anxiety in social situations
  • A change in physical appearance (such as always appearing fatigued)
  • Withdrawal symptoms, including everything from anxiety to nausea and vomiting.

Opioid Overdose: A Real Possibility for Any Opioid Addict

The other thing to be aware of in the face of this opioid crisis is the real possibility of an opioid overdose. As the main news story above shows, opioid overdose deaths are primarily responsible for a drastic rise in the number of children in foster care in the United States. Opioid overdose deaths continue to rise in 2017. This is an unfortunate reality, and one that can be reversed if people know what to look for in an opioid overdose. Some of the most common signs of an opioid overdose include:

  • Tiny pupils
  • Extremely slow (or stopped) breathing
  • Vomiting
  • Blue lips and a pale face
  • Non-responsiveness/unconsciousness

Because opioids slow the body’s breathing, most opioid overdose deaths are caused by respiratory depression. When taking too much of a prescription opioid or a high dose of heroin, a person can stop their breathing altogether.

Getting Help: How Opioid Addiction Treatment Works

The take away from all of this should not only be what we can do in the face of the opioid crisis and the rising number of kids in the foster care system. In addition to these large-scale changes, it is crucial to know how to get help for opioid addiction. Thankfully, opioid addiction treatment offers help – and hope – for those who are currently struggling with a substance use disorder. Intensive outpatient treatment, one-on-one therapy, group support meetings, and in some cases medication-assisted treatment can reverse the dangerous effects of opioid addiction. If you are addicted to prescription opioids, or street-level opiates like heroin, do not hesitate and reach out for help today. If you have more questions about the opioid crisis and opioid addiction treatment, feel free to contact us. We are here to help reverse the opioid epidemic on an individual level.