How the Opioid Epidemic is Affecting Children

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We typically examine addiction by exploring how it affects the addicted person, but as anyone who has struggled with addiction–either personally or within their family–will tell you, the addict isn’t the only person affected. In 2015 the opioid epidemic caused approximately 20,000 deaths linked to prescription painkillers and nearly 13,000 deaths related to heroin. But there is an underlying epidemic that doesn’t receive as much attention: the influx of children flooding the foster care system as a result of their parents’ drug use.

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How did we get here?
Drugs have always driven children into the foster care system, but the country hasn’t experienced anything quite this significant since the crack cocaine epidemic in the 1980s. The opioid epidemic is the deadliest wave of drug use the United States has ever seen, leading many to believe it could lead to an unprecedented impact on the country’s foster care system.

In 2016, parental drug use accounted for approximately 92,000 new foster care cases–the most in more than 30 years of record-keeping. Increased demand on a system that’s already slow to move has led to a delay in finding suitable placements for these children. State and local officials are trying to accommodate the influx “by recruiting new foster parents, asking existing ones to take on another child, and increasing capacity in emergency shelters, group homes and other places that house wards of state.”

Officials often try to place children with existing family members first. In fact, more than 2.6 million grandparents are raising their grandchildren due to their own child’s struggle with drug use.

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What happens to the children?
Losing custody due to drug addiction. As the opioid addiction continues to claim more lives and put more parents at risk for losing custody of their children, it continues to leave more children parentless; subject to the system.

Parents living with addiction are constantly at risk of losing custody of their children. When a child enters foster care, parents are granted a certain amount of time to get clean, otherwise parental rights may be terminated. Some parents voluntarily give up custody and their children are put under the care of a family member or foster parent.

Children of all ages are affected by the opioid epidemic, although on average they are about three years younger than most foster children due to the number of infants born to addicted mothers. These newborns are born with neonatal abstinence syndrome, a condition that leads to an excruciating withdrawal process. Hospitals around the country have already begun testing for this condition so officials can intervene immediately. In some cases, some newborns enter the foster care system when they are just days old.

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The opioid epidemic’s impact on children is yet another glaring example of how this particularly type of addiction continues to ravage the country. An increased demand for foster care has put a strain on the system, and it struggles to find an adequate solution. If you or someone you love is struggling with opioid addiction, take the first step toward recovery by speaking with a Recovery Specialist at (888) 693-1872.


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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave


Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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