Here’s One Way to Stop the Opioid Crisis in America’s Foster Care System.

The five children stood outside the door late that winter evening. Like the proverbial deer in the headlights, the five simply stared straight ahead before their new foster parents ushered them into the foster care home. The look of fear was very evident in each of their eyes, as they clung to each other, clothes stapled together. All five had been removed from their home due to the manufacturing and sale of drugs in their home by their parents; a home steeped in meth, of heroin, and perhaps most horrifically, a home filled with human and dog feces. As there were so few foster homes in the area, the foster parents were called upon to bring these children into the home, despite the fact that they already had six other children already living with them.

Once again, children were being placed into the foster care system due to parental use of opioids. Once again, the foster care system was struggling to keep up.

The opioid crisis continues to not only destroy families in America, but also continues to place considerable strain on a foster care system that is already over burdened. How prevalent is the opioid epidemic in the United States? From 2000 to 2015 more than half a million people died from drug overdoses. Disturbingly, 91 people in America die from an opioid overdose each day.

As more children are being placed into care, the foster care system also faces the challenge of the shortage of foster parents and foster homes across the nation. With roughly 450,000 children in foster care across the nation, there are not enough foster homes, as foster care agencies face the challenge of recruitment and retention of foster parents. Indeed, there has been an increase in children being placed into the foster care system the last two years, much in part to the opioid crisis. A study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services concluded that from October 2012 to September 2015, as addictions to opioids grew, the number of children entering the into foster care system in the nation grew by eight percent.

The foster care system is also struggling with the rise of babies being born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome. Indeed, up to 94 percent of babies born to mothers who used opioids while pregnant will suffer symptoms of drug withdrawal. One study found that babies born the past decade suffering from NAS increased five-fold across the nation. Furthermore, yet another study found that a baby is born suffering from opiate withdrawals every 25 minutes

Irene Clements, Executive Director of The National Foster Parent Association, stated, “Often opioid abuse by parents creates sever neglect or abuse of the children living in the home. We know from years of research and from parenting children who have endured sever neglect, that these children often have life long issues related to that neglect.”

On August 10 of 2017, President Donald Trump declared, “”The opioid crisis is an emergency, and I’m saying officially, right now, it is an emergency. It’s a national emergency. We’re going to spend a lot of time, a lot of effort and a lot of money on the opioid crisis.” Despite the President’s statement, the US government has done little if anything to truly combat this new drug war. Yet, there are steps that can be taken to begin effectively fighting this war.

To be sure, as a nation, we need to certainly meet this new drug war head on, with stopping the supply of illegal drugs and opioids at the source, whether it is at the US border, through online sales, international sales, and through gangs and cartels that operate both in the US and in other nations. Treatment and recovery programs are essential, as well.

Yet, as I have found while caring for children in foster care for over a decade, it truly starts in the home. Prevention is key, and early prevention is essential. We must address the issues that lead to drug usage and addiction in our nation. In the 1980’s, during the Reagan administration, the nation rallied behind the “Just Say No” slogan, and was determined to end the drug war and drug culture that prevailed during that decade plus. The battle plan was effective in that drug usage was cut in half during that time. Quite simply, the nation needs to adopt this battle plan once again, instead of ignoring the issue, and turning a blind eye, as it often does. Today’s national leaders, Hollywood entertainers, athletes, civic groups, faith based leaders, schools, and healthcare professionals need to preach the dangers of opioid usage from each platform, from each rooftop, and from each corner of the nation.

Make no mistake, this approach alone will not bring an end to the opioid crisis that is strangling the nation, but it is an approach that is needed; an approach that today’s children and families need to hear, over and over and over again. As America continues to wage a war against the opioid crisis, and as the nation’s foster care system continues to struggle with the number of children being placed into an already taxed system, it is the children who are the true victims of this opioid war. It is time we begin telling them about these dangers; telling them until we are blue in the face, and then even more so.

Dr. John DeGarmo is an international expert on foster care. He has been a foster parent for 15 years, now, and he and his wife have had over 50 children come through their home. He is a consultant to foster care agencies, child welfare organizations, and legal firms, as well as a speaker and trainer on many topics about the foster care system. He is the author of several foster care books, including Faith and Foster Care,and writes for several publications. He can be contacted at drjohndegarmo@gmail.com, through his Facebook page, Dr. John DeGarmo, or at The Foster Care Institute.

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