The percentage of US children seized from their homes because their parents abused drugs doubled in less than 20 years, amid the opioid epidemic, according to a new study.
In 2017, nearly 97,000 children were moved to foster care because US officials determined that drug abuse had rendered their parents unable to care for them, a Harvard University and Weill Cornell analysis found.
The American Society for Addiction Medicine’s (ASAM) latest data suggest that over 20 million US adults had a substance misuse disorder.
But that number doesn’t begin to capture how their addictions affect their families, and strains government agencies like Child Protective Services (CPS).
And as the addiction crisis grows in the US, more and more children enter the foster care system, an often traumatic process that may present them with life-long challenges, including risks for ADHD, high blood pressure, diabetes and asthma.
As of 2017, 36% of children seized from their homes by CPS and put in foster care were taken because their parents were addicted to drugs (blue dotted line), a new study found
Seizing a child from their home is the last resort for CPS and social workers.
Kids are only taken from their parents if they are in danger of being physically harmed or sexually abused or letting them stay at home won’t be best for their health and welfare – and nothing that CPS has done has alleviated the risks at home.
CPS is only permitted to take a child against their parents’ will if a court has already deemed the home unsafe, or in emergency situations, in which case the court has to review the circumstances of the removal the next day.
The US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SMAHSA) estimates that some one in eight – or 8.7 million – children live in homes with one or more parents with a history of abusing drugs or alcohol.
Still, relatively few of these cases rise to the threshold CPS and the court system requires to remove children from their homes by force.
But the number is growing exponentially.
In 2000, 39,130 children were seized from their parents and placed in the foster care system because of drug use in the home, accounting for 14.5 percent of such removals.
By 2017, the number and proportion had risen to 96,672 children, or 36.3 percent of removals – double the
Compared to kids taken from home for other reasons – which can be anything from neglect, to concerns over a parent’s mental health, or that a child is being emotionally or physically abused – those removed because of drug abuse are more often under five years old.
These children are also more likely to be white and from the South than are other children seized from their homes.
OPIOIDS IN AMERICA: BY THE NUMBERS
Opioid prescriptions are going down across the US, but overdoses are not.
Last year, the rate of opioid overdose deaths hit a record high, with around 200 Americans dying every day, according to new figures, published by the DEA earlier this month.
US Health Secretary Alex Azar insists the tide has turned this year.
However, doctors warn the boom in prescriptions flooded the market with unused pills, some of which may have made it onto the black market.
An in-depth analysis of 2016 US drug overdose data shows that America’s overdose epidemic is spreading geographically and increasing across demographic groups.
Drug overdoses killed 63,632 Americans in 2016.
Nearly two-thirds of these deaths involved a prescription or illicit opioid. Overdose deaths increased in all categories of drugs examined for men and women, people ages 15 and older, all races and ethnicities, and across all levels of urbanization.
The Orange County Health Agency found that there has been an 88 percent of drug overdose deaths between 2000 and 2015.
Half of those deaths were due to accidental prescription drug overdoses. Seven out of every 10 overdose deaths between 2011 and 2015 involved opioids.
Source: CDC, Orange County Health Agency
If a child has to be forcibly placed in foster care, it might be the best thing for them, but it certainly isn’t good for them.
A 2014 assessment of young adults who grew up in foster care found that these children have significantly higher rates of ADHD, diabetes, smoking, high blood pressure and asthma than their peers that grew up at home – even if the family didn’t have financial security.
And the longer a child has to stay in foster care, the more at-risk for these poorer health outcomes they are.
When children are removed from home, the goal is for the separation to be short-term.
But children who are removed because of their parents’ drug abuse are more likely to be in foster care longer, if they are ever reunited with their families, according to the new study, published in JAMA Pediatrics.
‘This is of special concern because of the large proportion of children experiencing entry [into the foster care system] before age five years, a critical period for forming stable attachments,’ the study authors write.
‘Policymakers must ensure that the needs of this new wave of children entering foster care because of parental drug use are being met though high-quality foster care interventions.
‘These have been shown to mitigate some of the adverse effects of early childhood deprivation and disruptions in attachment.’
Developing healthy parental attachments under the age of five is crucial to ensuring the best possible mental health outcomes later in life.
Attachment disruption can set these young children back in the short term too. Previous studies have shown that young kids may lose their potty training and even start struggling to speak and express themselves as clearly.
So children that enter the foster system from homes where there was drug abuse may face risks from two sources, as parental drug abuse ‘is considered an adverse childhood experience…that might have a long-term impact,’ lead study author Dr Angelica Meinhofer said.
Dr Meinhofer, a healthcare policy researcher at Cornell, says her team’s study can’t definitively link the opioid epidemic to these child removals, but that ‘it’s very possible that greater opioid use is one of the reasons’ we see this trend.
Amid both the opioid epidemic and a surge of concern for fetal safety in the US, she notes that changing policies – such as state policies that deem drug use during pregnancy neglect or abuse – may also be driving up these child seizures.
Regardless of its drivers, more children are winding up in foster care at young ages after being seized from households where CHP deems drug abuse a danger to them, and the foster care system may soon find itself stretched thin to provide for them.
Dr Meinhofer hopes that her team’s work will encourage other researchers to ask ‘whether our system has the capacity to absorb this growing population.’
She adds that the US needs to work out ‘the best allocation of resources or if more resources are necessary’ to meet the needs of kids whose parents misused drugs.
‘Policymakers should take this seriously,’ Dr Meinhofer says.