November 28, 2016 – The Opioid Epidemic's Effect on the Child Welfare System

Teresa HuizarGood morning and happy Monday.  I hope this finds everyone well and well-rested from the Thanksgiving holiday. This morning, in stark contrast to the portraits of families during the holidays that the media inundates us with, I’d like to turn your attention to a report published by Children and Family Futures. The report is the written testimony of Children and Family Futures’ Director, Dr. Nancy Young, before the United States Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, and is titled “Examining the Impact of the Opioid Epidemic.” 

While we are all, no doubt, aware of the opioid epidemic that is sweeping the nation, Dr. Young’s testimony is particularly relevant for our purposes because it focuses on the effect this is having on the nation’s child welfare and foster care system. Id., p. 3. As is often the case with issues like these, defining the scope of the problem is difficult. According to SAMHSA’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health, “rates of dependence on heroin has doubled and overdose deaths increased 286 percent between 2002 and 2013.” Id. The two aspects of parental opioid use that affect the child welfare system are “(1) prenatal opioid and other substance use exposure when it is determined that there are immediate safety factors resulting in the newborn being placed in protective custody; and (2) post-natal use that affects parents’ ability to safely care for their children.”  Id., p. 5.

As CACs and MDTs, we are more likely to intersect with cases involving post-natal use. But as Dr. Young points out, our ability to understand the scope and magnitude of the problem is often hampered.  What we do know from the data is that “[a]mong all the reasons for child removal, drug abuse by parents showed the largest rate of increase over the past five years. In addition, child welfare professionals often tell us that neglect is the category that is checked in the data system but that neglect is almost always associated with parents’ substance use disorder.” Id., p. 10.

What does this mean for us as CACs and MDTs? On the one hand, it means that we need to be more cognizant of the factors that are indicators of parental substance use disorder. It means, too, that we need to be working closely with our CPS agencies to be more involved in cases with allegations of neglect, particularly those in parts of the country hardest hit by the opioid epidemic. Forensic interviews in these cases could not only help to identify and quantify the issue, but could also help in getting families specific and effective treatments.

And there are some great resources out there to assist you in directing families to appropriate resources. One such resource is the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which has an entire section of its website devoted to the opioid epidemic, including prevention, treatment and recovery options, and professional resources. Click here for more information.

Dr. Young points out that “[f]amilies and child welfare agencies have been affected by multiple drug epidemics over the past several decades—cocaine in the late 1980s, methamphetamine in the early 2000s and now opioids.” Id., p. 11. While that isn’t good news, there is good news in that we have learned from prior drug epidemics and we now have a better sense of what works in terms of treatment modalities. She notes that early identification of families in need of substance use disorder treatment, and timely access to such resources are key. Id., p. 12. CACs and MDTs can play a key role in both.
I strongly urge you to download Dr. Young’s testimony, and read it in full. Take the time to discuss it with your colleagues and team members. If we work together, we can help these children and families get the assistance they need to withstand the detriment of the opioid epidemic.

As always, I thank you for all your hard work and dedication and for all that you do on behalf of children and families.

Warm regards,  
Teresa | 516 C Street, NE, Washington, DC 20002 US

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