How Drug Addiction Has Affected The Foster Care System

On July 15, the academic journal JAMA Pediatrics published a study that examines how drug abuse and the Opioid Epidemic have strained the foster care system in the United States. The researchers obtained their data from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System, a federal government information project. Almost 5 million children entered foster care between 2000 and 2017. There are many reasons why the authorities take children away from their parents, including neglect and child abuse. Drug addiction, especially addiction to opioids, is becoming an increasingly common reason. According to the study, 1,162,668 children entered the foster care system between 2000 and 2017 because of their parents’ drug addiction.

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In many cases, state or local authorities determined that the parents were too addicted to drugs to adequately care for their children. Additionally, in other cases, the parents sometimes died from drug overdoses or went to prison for using or selling illegal drugs. In all of these situations, if the parents lacked relatives who could care for their children, their children entered the custody of the state.

In 2000, drug addiction was the cause of only about 15% of foster care entrances. By 2017, that percentage had grown to 36%. While foster care entrances for drug abuse increased, entrances for abuse and neglect declined. The study found that children who entered foster care because their parents were battling drug addiction were likely to be under the age of five. Moreover, while most drug-related foster care entrances happened in the South, the number of such entrances increased the most in the Midwest. The researchers stated in their article that this problem “coincide[s] with increasing trends in opioid use and overdose deaths nationwide during this period.” In Ohio, a state where the Opioid Epidemic has been especially disastrous, about half of all children who enter foster care have drug-addicted parents.

What Are The Solutions To This Problem?

Since the study has been published, numerous commentators have begun to suggest ways to resolve the challenges of caring for children who lose their parents to opioids and other drugs. Angelica Meinhofer, one of the researchers for the study, stated that she hopes her findings will help the children who are so often the forgotten victims of drug abuse.

A lot of the work out there has focused on mortality and overdoses and how it affects adults. [It’s] less known how the epidemic might spill over to children. And that’s something I’m trying to shed light on.”

- Angelica Meinhofer, Ph.D., referring to the opioid epidemic

Addiction experts and social workers have recommended that state and local governments set up drug courts and sponsor treatment programs for addicted parents. These would provide them the opportunity to recover from addiction and raise their children. April Dirks, a social worker from Iowa, said in response to the study that “the foster care system is overburdened — there’s not enough families, not enough services,” and that children suffer trauma when they lose their parents. For this reason, there should be greater effort to keep families together through treatment. Children sometimes enter the foster care system temporarily and then reunite with their parents once they overcome substance abuse.

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction and considering treatment, contact a treatment provider today to learn more about the many rehab centers which are committed to helping people achieve long-lasting recovery.

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Nathan Yerby

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  • Nathan Yerby is a writer and researcher. He is a graduate of the University of Central Florida.

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Cindy Hardy