Opioid crisis escalates need for foster care

By Eileen Weber
February 4th, 2020

Blended family of bio children, adopted children (former foster children)
Photo courtesy of Michelle Brewster

It’s no secret that the opioid crisis has taken a toll in this country. But according to the CDC’s National Center for Health statistics, the New England states have been hit hardest. Fentanyl was the leading cause of overdose deaths in the country in 2017. In New England alone, there were 22.5 fentanyl overdoses per 100,000 people. And of the New England states, New Hampshire has one of the highest rates of opioid-related overdose deaths nation-wide.

But those suffering from addiction aren’t the only ones impacted; so are their children. More than 400,000 kids in the United States are in foster care at any given point.

Placement in foster care can be because of abuse or neglect and is often is just the first step on a scary journey. Being taken away from the only home you know often means jumping from foster home to foster home with no continuity. In some cases, children end up in institutions that are more akin to juvenile detention. And, statistics show many of those foster kids end up with a higher rate of addictions, unwanted pregnancies, and even incarceration.

The number of children funneled into the foster care system started to rise in 2010, about the same time as opioid addictions were increasing. Based on a study from the Department of Health and Human Services in March 2019, foster care rose 10 percent between 2012 and 2016 which was largely attributed to overdose deaths in parents.

But are opioids the only problem? Methamphetamines appear to be opioids’ partner in crime. In a May 2019 article from Kaiser Health News, the focus has been on the opioid epidemic but meth has been quietly catching up.

Across the country, overdose deaths involving meth more than quadrupled from 2011 to 2017. Admissions to treatment facilities for meth are up 17 percent. Hospitalizations related to meth jumped by about 245 percent from 2008 to 2015.”

In a released statement from the Office of the Child Advocate in New Hampshire, Director Moira O’Neill, Ph.D, agreed we need to be careful about focusing solely on opioids. There are a number of other contributing factors.

Caseworkers are also reporting significant safety concerns for children when parents are using other substances such as methamphetamines, alcohol, and even marijuana,” she said.

Removal from the home, no matter the circumstances, is a traumatic event for a child. This trauma is often compounded by multiple foster home placements or delayed permanency as the timeline for addiction recovery can be long and punctuated by many stops and starts.”

O’Neill further warned that as children are placed in foster care, the system can also have adverse effects on foster parents. Foster parents will often witness children returning to their original home when the birth parent may not be fully ready to care for them.

When a foster care system may not include them in the process of removal and placement, it can be all the more frustrating. “These experiences,” she said, “can lead some foster parents to decide that fostering is too difficult given the toll it takes on them and their family.”

Mariellen J. MacKay, executive director of the New Hampshire Foster & Adoptive Parent Association, responded to the increased need in foster care in conjunction with Michael D. Carignan, Kerry Baxter, and David Bailey, a foster parent, of the Nashua Police Department, Joseph E. Ribsam, Jr., director of New Hampshire’s Division for Children, Youth & Families, and Susan Hills, also a foster parent.

Collectively, they pointed out that substance abuse is only part of the problem. The lack of strong mental health services and providers further impacts the issue. They noted that New Hampshire used to have one of the top mental health records in the nation. But after budget cuts in 2010, the state fell sharply to the bottom.

Alcohol and other street drugs, prescription drugs, homelessness, culture, and educational deficits are all contributing factors as well.

Both O’Neill and MacKay indicated there’s a silver lining to the story. While the foster care numbers doubled in New Hampshire from 2015 to 2018, the number of children entering the foster system today is slowly on a downward spiral.

Other states like Massachusetts have implemented residential substance treatment programs to keep families together. But New Hampshire is one of three states in the nation including Kentucky and California that has implemented the Strength to Succeed program.

It is a voluntary program with a trust-based model of peer-to-peer support for children and their families from those staff members who have had their own experiences and had positive outcomes.

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