In 2015, the drug epidemic claimed the lives of more than 33,000 Americans; more than fatal car crashes or deaths caused by firearms. In that same year, roughly 2 million Americans reportedly had a substance use disorder involving prescription opiates and 591,000 involving heroin. While these figures are staggering, the number of young children directly affected by the drug epidemic may astonish you.
News reports and social media feeds portray the horrific reality that some of our youngest fall victim to. A small child watched her mother overdose in a grocery store, as bystanders filmed the incident rather than helping. A father shared a video to Facebook of the conversation he had with his small son regarding his mother’s death from overdose. In December, a Pennsylvania couple was found dead from suspected heroin overdoses. Sadly, their 5 month old baby was also found unresponsive. Johnstown coroner reports the child died of starvation and dehydration, estimating she passed 4-5 days after her parents.
Gruesome stories. Some so hard to handle, we have difficulty really allowing it to register in our minds. We would like to believe these things could never happen in our neighborhoods or to our families. The stigma attached to addiction is finally beginning to be broken, as new voices are heard and new legislation is put in place to stem the tide of the growing drug epidemic. Although we are a very long way from where we need to be, innovative prevention and intervention methods are being created for addicts. But, what about the children? The ones left to fend for themselves, the kids that are being raised by grandparents or foster care, or the ones who are never given a choice, and are born dependent upon drugs.
Crisis In The Foster Care System
On a national level, the number of children in foster care rose 8% in 3 years flat. Between 2012 and 2015 that number went up to 428,000. That’s 428,000 children without a family, abandoned by parents, or taken from their homes because they couldn’t be cared for properly. Many experts believe the dramatic rise is a direct correlation to the heroin and opioid drug epidemic. Furthermore, there is an estimated 2.5 million children in our country, living with a relative or someone other than their own parents.
On a state level, the numbers are profound. Here in Pennsylvania, as we grapple with the drug epidemic, the placement of children in foster care has also risen. From 2012 to 2015 that number increased by 14%, going from 14,004 to 15,995; that number is projected to keep climbing. In Ohio, as 9,900 kids have been placed into the system, nearly half of those cases involved parental substance abuse. Georgia, New Hampshire, Kentucky, and many other states see similar statistics.
Grandparents Step In
More fallout from the drug epidemic is the growing number of grandparents taking on the role of caregiver to their grandkids. Rather than gearing up for retirement and planning a long, overdue vacation, they are instead parenting all over again. From carpooling, to getting the kids off to school, to cooking kid friendly meals, these grandparents are stepping in to offer some semblance of normalcy for these young children.
At last count, 2.9 million children were living with their grandparents in 2015. Much of that is a direct result of the opioid drug epidemic. Caseworkers in several states have said that children are often left neglected and/or abandoned by their parents, due to the toll that drug addiction creates for the individual. Many of times, these caseworkers will turn to family members and grandparents for assistance, to ensure some sense of familiarity for the child and to reduce additional trauma. Federal law requires states to first consider placement with family members before turning to the foster care system.
While many grandparents would rather see their grandchildren with them instead of a foster family, the financial burden alone can create many difficulties. One Massachusetts family spent $35K in court fees to fight for kinship rights for her two grandchildren. Although having to face her own son in court was difficult to say the least, the alternative was worse. Having her grandchildren taken by the Department of Children and Families (DCF) was out of the question. Now, retirement has been postponed and her life savings is gone.
Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome
The term Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome may not be very well-known or understood by many. Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome or NAS happens when a baby is exposed to drugs while still in the womb, and often times occurs when the mother has used opioid-based drugs during her pregnancy. In other words, babies born addicted to drugs, namely opioids. While this syndrome has been studied and diagnosed for several decades, the number of newborns with NAS has skyrocketed across the country in the last few years.
A baby is born dependent on opiates every 15 minutes in the United States. Between 2000 and 2012 that number increased 5 fivefold, topping out at an estimated 21,732. Here in Pennsylvania, the statistics show a dramatic rise as well. From 2000 to 2015, newborns diagnosed with NAS went from 788 to 2,691, a 242% increase!
As the numbers continue to climb, hospitals around the country, including in Pennsylvania, recruit volunteers to “cuddle” these newborns. The symptoms of neonatal abstinence syndrome would be dreadful for any adult to endure, so we can only imagine the pain and torment a baby goes through. Those symptoms include tremors, muscle spasms, diarrhea, sweating, poor sleep, and so on. Hospitals, such as Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, have enlisted the help of volunteers to comfort and console the babies. Often times, the only thing that helps with the repeated shaking, body tremors, and shrill cries, is swaddling, holding, or “cuddling” them. Studies also show that this technique can influence faster weight gain and shorter hospital stays. Babies can spend weeks, even months in the hospital as they are weaned off of opiates through the use of an oral morphine or methadone taper.
The Drug Epidemic
Clearly, the drug epidemic is not slowing down anytime soon. Drug users continue to lose their battle to addiction; families attempt to pick up the pieces; and now, our youngest generation, is beginning their first months and years in this world, fighting a harder battle than most adults ever have to face in a lifetime. Raising awareness is only the first part of the battle. There comes a point in time when actions must speak louder than words.
More resources need to become available in general for the addicted population, as well as their family members. With more funding, pregnant women in need of help may get the treatment they need, decreasing either the likelihood or symptoms of NAS. Also, grandparents may get additional financial support to help take care of children left without their parents, and those children in foster care may have a better opportunity at a promising future. Lastly, with more available resources, the addicted individual may get the treatment they need, ultimately decreasing the likelihood of any of this happening. In other words, we must address the source, if not, we will continue to find ourselves in a perpetuating cycle of addiction, death, and child abandonment.
Contact Clearbrook For Addiction Help
We at Clearbrook have unfortunately witnessed the devastation of the opioid drug epidemic first hand. We know its pain and understand the hopelessness one feels when trapped in the midst of it. Nevertheless, we have found a solution; a way out.
For more than 40 years, Clearbrook Treatment Centers has been a national leader in quality drug and alcohol treatment, providing effective and customized care for our patients. If you or a loved one is suffering from drug addiction and/or alcoholism, please know that there is a way out. Take the first step today and contact our Admissions Specialists. Recovery starts here!