One of the greatest tragedies of the opioid epidemic is how it devastates families.
The most recent numbers, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), show that 115 people die every day from opioid overdose in the US. Out of the tens of thousands of people losing their lives to opioids each year, a large number of them leave behind children. Some health officials call kids who have lost their parents to the ongoing crisis “opioid orphans”. And recent data shows how the impact of the epidemic on the foster care system has been staggering.
In many cases, a child may be removed from their birth parents custody if a court determines them unfit due to their drug use, or a child may lose their parents forever to overdose. All around the country, this has become a growing problem. Experts believe the opioid and heroin addiction epidemic has severely impacted the rising number of children orphaned or essentially abandoned by their parents.
Opioid Orphans: Surviving an Outbreak
All over the country, there are opioid orphans living with family members after losing their parents. The Department of Health and Human Services states that in 2016:
- Approximately 92,000 children were removed from their homes because at least one parent had an issue with substance abuse
- 34% of cases with children removed from the home were related to substance abuse
According to other recent reports:
- 2.7 million grandparents and other relatives are raising opioid orphans all across America
- Children 3-5 years old have the highest rates of living with their grandparents
- 642,000 3-5 year-olds live with both grandparents
- 660,000 3-5 year-olds live with their grandmothers
- 114,000 3-5 year-olds live with their grandfathers
It is hard to solidify the exact figures connecting the heroin epidemic to the overall increase in children being cared for by someone other than their parents. However, there are many signs that indicate there is a very real connection between these two issues.
For example, according to Kentucky Youth Advocates, the state has:
- The highest rate of “kinship care” in the country
- Estimated 68,000 children there live with a grandparent or blood relative
- 8,200 are in foster care
Meanwhile, Kentucky also has an opioid-overdose death rate of 23.6 per 100,000 people. That is nearly double the national opioid overdose death rate.
Sadly, in many cases, the children do not have a family to take them in, at which point they become part of an already strained foster care system.
In both rural and urban areas, the opioid epidemic is reported to have created an outbreak of abandoned and orphaned children. In Ohio, one of the states hit the worst by the opioid crisis:
- 14% increase in children in agency custody in 5 years
- Approximately 14,000 children in agency custody in 2017
Ohio’s Attorney General, Mike DeWine, states:
“We think about 50% of the kids who are in foster care in Ohio are there because one or both parents are in fact drug addicts.”
West Virginia has seen similar spikes in the last few years. According to West Virginia’s Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR):
- 24% increase in children in foster care between 2012 and 2016
- 5,182 children in foster care in 2016
- 6,399 children were in foster care in 2017
It is difficult to give an exact number of how many of these cases are directly due to substance abuse. However, officials who have worked with the West Virginia DHHR have suggested that anywhere between 50% and 90% of new foster care cases were related to substance abuse.
Between 2011 and 2015, 14 states saw the number of children in the foster care system spike by more than a quarter. According to the advocacy group Children’s Rights, kids in many states, including Texas and Oregon, have been forced to sleep in state buildings because there were not enough foster homes for them all.
Looking at the data, it is truly heartbreaking to imagine how many thousands of opioid orphans are living every day not knowing when or where they will ever have a home.
Opioid Orphans: Examining the Impact
How can we measure the impact of parental addiction on children?
Some teens slowly watch as their normal life is torn apart by drugs, while other kids grow up experiencing horrific trauma and abuse. Many opioid orphans watch their parents try to get clean for years; while others are forced to watch their parents die of an overdose, not knowing why or how to help.
Then there are the opioid orphans who are themselves born addicted. Recent data suggests that every 15 minutes, a baby is born substance-exposed. This year almost 50,000 of these children will enter the foster care system, more than ever before. Many children born with prenatal exposure to opioids and other drugs have to fight from the moment they are born. And once they enter into the foster system, their lives often become another battle.
There is no set standard for examining the impact of a parent’s addiction on children. On one hand, there are thousands of healthy infants who eventually end up in safe and loving foster homes until their birth parents can get help. Meanwhile, other children are so devastated by a parent’s addiction that they develop their own problems with drugs or alcohol. Some kids find themselves stuck in a cycle of foster family after foster family or end up living in a group home. While it is often a better place than living with addicted parents, group homes can be strained by overcrowding and limited resources.
Sadly, so many opioid orphans struggle to cope with the loss of their parent or being taken from their homes. These children often grapple with issues like feelings of abandonment and anxiety. They can end up suffering academically, socially, mentally and emotionally due to their experiences with an addicted parent.
Opioid Orphans: Healing a Generation
One thing we can say with certainty is this generation has a larger population of opioid orphans than America has ever seen. More and more children have lost their parents to overdose, been abandoned by their parent for drugs, or been taken from their family because of substance abuse in the home. So how will these kids grow up? Despite having loving grandparents and relatives, or compassionate foster families, what will be the long-term outcome of kids who lose their mothers and fathers to opioids?
Officials believe that there needs to be more support and better regulation for the foster care system. Many believe there should be giving more financial support to institutions dealing with opioid orphans and other foster children. Some officials also insist there should be better legislation to protect the rights of the children affected by the loss of a parent.
Of course, a huge part of helping children impacted by opioids is to help heal their families. A crucial component of healing this generation of opioid orphans is to help put their families back together. This means giving their parents an opportunity to get the help they need.
No child should have to grow up without parents who love them.
There should be more services that assist foster care providers, grandparents and other relatives with giving these children a better quality of life. And likewise, there should be expanded access to holistic addiction treatment for the parents. Because people with addiction also deserve to have a better quality of life.
This almost means making families part of the recovery process. Healing those who suffer and reuniting families should always be a priority in the battle against addiction.