By Patti Richards
Sitting around the kitchen table waiting for their breakfast, the children get worried and call her name. When she doesn’t answer, they begin searching the house, and there she is, face down on the floor of her bedroom. The oldest takes the phone beside her and calls 911. Now they wait, sitting on the floor next to her, stroking her hair, whispering, “Mama, wake up,” while they stay on the line with the operator. She is barefoot, so they take the flip flops she had on last night and slip them on her feet. They can’t let her go without her shoes on.
This may sound like a scene from a movie, but for children caught in the opioid epidemic, it’s closer to a slice of everyday life. So much so that the fallout from addicted parents unable to care for their children has quickly become its own health crisis. According to Psychology Today, between 2013 and 2015, the number of children in foster care in the US rose by a staggering seven percent — to a total of nearly 429,000. The US Department of Health and Human Services Administration cited parental substance abuse in approximately 32 percent of all placements during that time period. A large number of these were due to parental opioid abuse, but many were also the direct result of the death of a parent from opioid overdose.1 The overwhelming numbers of these “indirect victims” of the opioid epidemic find states and the federal government struggling to meet even their most basic care needs.
Unseen Opioid Victims
When it comes to understanding how so many children have become tangled up in the opioid crisis, it helps to look at the adults who are using. A recent New York Times Magazine article reported that of the 2.1 million Americans currently struggling with opioid addiction, many are young women of childbearing age. Of all the opioid addiction demographics, young adults ages 18-25 have been hit the hardest, with more than 400,000 current prescription drug and heroin abusers reported.2 And because keeping to a schedule of birth control is almost impossible for people struggling with addiction, most pregnancies that result from unprotected sex are unplanned.
Unplanned pregnancies often go undetected for months in women struggling with opioid addiction because the symptoms of morning sickness are similar to those of opioid withdrawal. Because of this, babies born to mothers struggling with addiction suffer from Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS), a form of opioid withdrawal. Pediatric addiction experts estimate that every 15 minutes in American a baby is born with NAS.2 Add these smallest victims to the number of minor children with parents who are incapable of meeting basic needs due to addiction, and the picture of how the opioid crisis is affecting America’s children becomes clear.
Opioids and the Foster Care Dilemma
As more and more children are removed from their homes, the foster care system is becoming overwhelmed in many states. For example, in Indiana, one of the foster care systems hardest hit with the largest one-year increase in the number of children needing foster care, the number has almost doubled. Judge Marilyn Moores, in a recent NPR interview, said the opioid crisis is straining Indiana resources like never before.3
“One of the hallmarks is we’re seeing many younger children than we had seen before,” said Moores. “I think the average age is about three years younger than we had seen. We see kids — little, itty-bitty children — that are found in car seats in the backs of cars where parents have overdosed in the front seat. And because of the age of the children, we can’t safely leave them with addicted parents. And so, it has just over-rolled our system.”3
And an overtaxed system means finding homes quickly and at reasonable distances from the children’s family of origin is a challenge. This makes reuniting families, which is the ultimate goal of foster care, difficult. “We have kids who are sleeping in the Department of Child Services office because there are no homes for them that can be quickly found,” Judge Moores continued. “Our public defenders, our DCS case managers, our guardians ad litem, our judicial officers are all overwhelmed. But everyone pulls together to try their very best to ensure child safety.”3
Whether or not a child has a parent struggling with opioid dependence, the impact this crisis is having on the current generation is far-reaching. School-aged children are now more likely to know a classmate with addiction in their home than ever before. Extended family members, like grandparents and aunts and uncles, are increasingly called upon to take in grandchildren and nieces and nephews. This means any children who are already in these homes are facing the fallout from addiction in staggering numbers. Older children are taking on the role of caregiver for younger siblings and even for parents when addiction within the family has yet to be addressed..4 That means school-aged children are coming to school sleep deprived, hungry and stressed at levels never seen before. And the gap between children who get to participate in important extracurricular programs, like sports and after-school clubs and activities, is widening, due to increased responsibilities and decreased resources within the home. Add this to the number of children in need of mental health services — in order to cope with the trauma of addiction — that may or may not receive them, and American society is looking at a public health crisis that will continue to unfold for years to come.
Finding Help for Opioid Addiction
Although the future for children impacted by opioid addiction is uncertain, there is hope. Individuals can heal and families can reunite through proper help and treatment. If you or a loved one struggles with opioid addiction, we are here for you. Call our toll-free helpline 24 hours a day to speak to an admissions coordinator about available treatment options. You are not alone. Call us now.
1 Collier, Lorna. “Young Victims of the Opioid Crisis.” Monitor on Psychology, January 2018.
2 Egan, Jennifer. “Children of the Opioid Epidemic.” The New York Times, May 9, 2018.
3 Simon, Scott. “The Foster Care System Is Flooded With Children Of The Opioid Epidemic.” NPR, December 23, 2017.
4 Levine, Carol. “The Statistics Can’t Capture the Opioid Epidemic’s Impact on Children.” STAT, December 30, 2017.