There’s a distinct correlation between parental addiction and child abuse and neglect. A parent’s addiction to drugs or alcohol is a factor one third of the time children are placed in foster care, according to the Child Welfare Information Gateway of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Children’s Bureau. Increasingly, the addiction is to opioids.
The problem is particularly acute — and growing — in Southern Oregon. The rates of children entering foster care here have skyrocketed since 2006, while the rates in most of the state have gone down. Already this year, 204 Douglas County children have entered foster care, a 398 percent increase from five years ago. Opioid addiction is a major factor in this jump. Southern Oregon’s seen more opioid-related arrests this year, and a steeper rise in arrests since 2009 than anywhere else in the state.
It’s all too easy to point a finger of blame at the addicts themselves, and turn away from the problem. After all, they started taking drugs in the first place. It’s not our fault. Righteous indignation feels good, doesn’t it?
But it won’t save the children.
Can you look a neglected child, or a foster child, in the eye and tell him that you’ve washed your hands of his problems because his parents are to blame. Really?
What we need here is a big helping of knowledge about evidence-based solutions to the problem, peppered with a dash of compassion.
How can you have compassion for a parent too high on opioids to care for his or her child?
It’s tough, but it may help to start with the knowledge that about 40 percent of people addicted to drugs suffer from mental illnesses. It’s particularly common in people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (and the bulk of these are veterans still unable to process their wartime experiences, along with victims of child abuse and sexual assault.)
Poverty is a common complicating factor, making it difficult or impossible to access treatment. Lack of access to birth control for women in poverty makes it more likely a young mother with addiction problems will have a child she didn’t want and isn’t prepared to care for. It also increases the number of babies whose first day in this world is marred by the pain of drug withdrawals.
Are any of these problems a sufficient excuse for neglecting or harming a child? No. But the bottom line is that unless we understand and treat the problem, the kids will just keep on suffering.
And the cost to them, and society as a whole, is enormous. When kids remain stuck in foster care until they age out of the system at 18, one in five become homeless. One in four will spend time behind bars within two years of aging out of the system, according to a study by the Pew Charitable Trust and Children and Family Futures.
The state of Oregon prefers to keep kids with their biological parents, and much of the system is bent toward returning foster kids to their birth parents as quickly as possible. Even if, as many suggest, the bias should swing the other way, it would be of little use. There were 428,000 kids in foster care in the country in 2015. Stop the return trips home, and there will be not nearly enough foster parents to cope with the demand. Group homes can be miserable places. And the idea that there are 428,000 would-be adoptive parents for children who aren’t babies and come with baggage is a fantasy. In reality, according to the Children’s Bureau, 112,000 foster kids hoped for adoption in 2015 and 53,000 were adopted.
So how do we do it? How do we keep kids safe and their parents healthy enough to take them back? Or better yet, reach parents and help them overcome drug addiction in time that they never come to neglect or abuse their kids? That’s where evidence-based practice comes in. We’re not the first community to face this problem, so we have the advantage of learning from those who have improved their own statistics.
The evidence suggests that important tools are early identification of at-risk families, increased access to treatment, and support services for the special needs of women addicted to drugs. Illinois has had success with the use of “recovery coaches,” who work with families to remove barriers to treatment and encourage and support them in recovering. Parents with coaches were more likely to get treatment, to do it more quickly, and to get their kids back and keep them safe than parents without coaches.
We already have experience with the effectiveness of drug court here in Douglas County. In King County, Washington, a variation on this that’s been shown effective is “family treatment court,” which adds the element of judicial monitoring.
If you have the heart and the means to become an adoptive or foster parent, we salute you. The rest of us need to do all we can to support programs that make Southern Oregon a better place for kids.