The opioid epidemic appears to be literally tearing families apart.
Children are being taken out of their homes at alarming rates because their parents are abusing drugs, a new study shows.
The number of kids placed in foster care in the United States due to parental drug use has more than doubled over the past two decades, rising to nearly 96,700 in 2017 from about 39,100 in 2000.
"The number of foster care entries related to drug use has been increasing for quite a long time," noted lead researcher Angelica Meinhofer. She's an instructor of health care policy and research at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City.
This increase began even as the overall foster care caseload in the United States steadily declined between 2000 and 2012.
However, in recent years the nation began to see the overall numbers start to increase again, researchers said in background notes. From 2012 to 2017, kids living in foster care increased by 12 percent, and children entering foster care increased by 8 percent.
Meinhofer and her colleagues suspected that the opioid epidemic might be fueling the growth in foster care, and turned to a federally mandated database that collects case-level information on all kids in foster care in the United States.
"One of the variables collected is whether children were removed from their home for parental drug use," Meinhofer said.
Nearly 5 million foster care entries occurred between 2000 and 2017, with about a quarter attributable to parents using drugs, the researchers found.
Both the number and proportion of entries due to drug use increased during that period. In 2000, nearly 15 percent of about 270,000 removals were prompted by drugs, compared with about 36 percent of about 267,000 removals in 2017.
This occurred even as foster care entries due to other household troubles steadily declined, results showed.
Children entering foster care due to parental drug use were more likely to be 5 years old or younger, white, and from the Southern region of the United States, researchers found.
"Some of the greatest growth has occurred in the Midwest," with the proportion of drug-related removals increasing from 19 percent in 2000-2005 to 25 percent in 2012-2017, Meinhofer said. "However, the majority of these children are in Southern states."
There's also been an increase in drug-related removals in areas outside of cities, with the proportion rising from 18 percent in 2000-2005 to 25% in 2012-2017.
Meinhofer was reluctant to say whether being placed in foster care harms a child's long-term chances of success, since the foster care system is intended to protect them from abuse or neglect.
"I hope more researchers become interested in this area and try to understand what is causing this growth and the implications of this growth," Meinhofer said.
The new study was published July 15 in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.
Addiction expert Dr. Scott Krakower agreed the opioid epidemic is likely fueling the rise in family separations.
"It's upsetting to see these kids enter the foster care system, but it serves a function," said Krakower, assistant unit chief of psychiatry at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, N.Y. "Sometimes there has to be a separation between parent and child so the parent can get the treatment they need before they reunite. It also poses less risk and danger to the child as well."
The Pew Charitable Trusts has more about drug addiction and foster care.
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