Opioid Epidemic Is Sending More Kids to Foster Care. Here’s What to Do About It.

Opioid-related deaths have skyrocketed by nearly 400 percent since 2000, causing communities, elected officials and the media to pay closer attention and search for solutions. Nevertheless, the consequences of the opioid epidemic are yet to be fully understood — particularly its impact on vulnerable children and families.

In 2017, no fewer than 96,000 children entered foster care in the United States due to parental drug abuse, overwhelming an already fragile system. After a period of decline in the early 2000s, the number of children in foster care increased by 10 percent from 2012 to 2016, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. At the same time, drug abuse by a parent rose more than 33 percent as the reason for children entering foster care.

Congress has taken strides to equip communities to combat the devastating impact of addiction on families. The Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2016 provided a framework to strengthen families. Of crucial significance, CARA had a genuine focus on the safety and treatment needs of both children and their caregivers.

CARA directed child welfare agencies to ensure that Safe Care plans are put into place for the ongoing safety of the child as well as treatment needs of the caregiver. Such plans typically involve medical professionals, substance abuse counselors, drug courts, and community-based partners.

Recognizing the growing pressure substance abuse is placing on the child welfare system, Congress also passed the SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act last fall. Among other measures targeted at turning the tide of the opioid epidemic, this law provides additional resources to address its impact on families specifically.

But more must be done to alleviate and reverse the full impact of the opioid crisis on families. A leading driver of the opioid crisis is a decline in community supports.

Isolated families are less likely to engage with government services that could help them. Communities will sustain any effort to reverse the impact of addiction on vulnerable children and families, so we must form more intentional networks of support made up of community organizations, faith-based organizations and traditional providers.

Bethany Christian Services, a global child protection organization, is committed to keeping and bringing families together. We have seen firsthand how addiction is tearing families apart.

In 2018, nearly half of all infants adopted through Bethany had birthparents who engaged in both legal and illegal substance use. This is a startling statistic and precisely the reason we must intensify joint efforts to address the scourge of addiction head-on.

Vulnerable families need professional support and authentic engagement. At Bethany, we seek to prevent unnecessary family separations by extending the network of social support to families in crisis. Programs such as Safe Families for Children recruit and train volunteers to support families and their children with mentoring, friendship, temporary care and resources.

Parents supported by Safe Families may be going through any number of challenges, but addiction continues to be a chief reason. Bethany and many other community-based organizations want to keep their children safe, keep them with their parents and help them get the care they need.

While we’ve seen some progress, much work remains to support struggling families in our communities. Congress can do more to encourage states to partner with community-based organizations. These organizations can then deliver services and support to children and their families, consistent with Safe Care plans.

We must prioritize a system that works to keep families together. Children should be able to grow up safely — in their own families — while their caregivers access services for prevention, treatment and support. Together, we can reduce the impact of substance misuse on families.


Chris Palusky, is president & CEO at Bethany Christian Services.

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