High stress on child social services tied to opioid crisis

The wave of children entering the foster care system due to the opioid crisis is putting high stress on services that protect children from cases of neglect and abuse.

The number of children who fall into that category is growing along with the opioid epidemic, making it difficult for social workers and juvenile justice case workers to care for and locate them all.

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services reports that the number of children in North Carolina who entered the foster system between the years of 2012 and 2016 increased from 4,857 to 5,721.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 115 Americans die every day from overdosing on opioids. In North Carolina alone, more than 12,000 people have died from opioid overdoses between 1999 and 2016.

The simultaneous increase in the number of opioid overdoses in America and the number of children being forced into the foster care system is no coincidence.

“The total number of children in foster care is influenced by a variety of factors,” said Kelly Haight, press assistant at the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. “The factors most closely associated with involvement in the foster care system are poverty, family violence, parental history of abuse or neglect and substance use, including opioids.”

The opioid crisis currently plaguing the United States has been characterized by the rising number of Americans overdosing on opioids year after year since the 1990’s. The growing number of Americans abusing opioids has had immeasurable negative effects on society and the economy and notably in recent years, the foster care system.

While there is a myriad of factors that contribute to the growing number of children in foster care, data from the North Carolina DHHS indicates that the percentage of children entering the system due to their parent’s substance abuse is increasing year by year.

According to the NC DHHS, in 2016 the second leading cause for children entering care, behind neglect, was parental drug use. In 2012, the percentage of children entering care for this reason accounted for 31.5 percent, which increased to 37.7 percent by 2016.

Children are being removed from their homes due to both drug abuse by their parents at home, which creates an inhospitable environment, and also drug overdoses that leave them without parents at all.

The stress this change has put on the nation as a whole- fiscally and societally -and individual states shows through the strain on state budgets that are now being stretched to account for more children that are becoming wards of the state as a result of the epidemic.

UNC Horizons is a program that serves pregnant and parenting women and their children who are affected by substance use disorders. Dr. Kim Andringa, director of research and evaluation at UNC Horizons said that her team has witnessed an increase in the number of women coming to Horizons with primary diagnoses of opioid use disorders in recent years.

In 2007, only 9 percent of the patients coming into Horizons had a primary opioid disorder diagnosis. This past year, that number was up to 62 percent.

Dr. Evette Horton, a clinical instructor and child therapist at Horizons, said that although the attorney general of North Carolina and other legislators are starting to address the issue of the opioid epidemic, the focus does not necessarily fall on the child welfare aspect of the problem.

“As a state, people are becoming more aware and talking about what we should do about it,” said Horton. “But it takes time to hire extra workers and to find more foster homes and that all trickles down, so the solution is just going to take time.”

While efforts are being made at the local, state and national levels to address this nationwide crisis, the issue of time and lack of focus on child welfare continues to present unanswered problems for social workers and child care providers.

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