The statistics are staggering, as thousands of people continue to die from overdoses related to opioid and heroin epidemics.
In New Jersey alone, the numbers of addiction-related deaths topped 2,000 last year, surpassing car accidents, shootings and suicides.
But members of Congress learned about another group of casualties during a Monday roundtable meeting before the House of Representatives’ Bipartisan Heroin Task Force: foster children.
The children of addicted parents are being placed into foster care in growing numbers, and it’s starting to overwhelm the system, according to Heather Forkey, assistant director of the Foster Children Evaluation Services program at UMass Memorial Children’s Medical Center in Worcester, Massachusetts.
“In Massachusetts, paternal substance abuse is the most common reason kids come into foster care, more so than domestic violence,” Forkey said Monday during the roundtable in Washington, D.C.
Nationally, the statistics are similar. Data from a 2016 report by the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System indicates that 32 percent of all cases that required children to be removed from their parents’ home were because of parental drug abuse — the second-leading cause for removal, after child neglect. It found that in 2015 alone, 85,937 kids in the United States entered the foster care system as a result of their parents using drugs.
“With so many kids coming into foster care, we have exhausted our foster parent supply, and really all that’s left is what we call hotline homes, which are 24-hour emergency placements,” Forkey said. “We miss out on the most valuable aspect of foster care when resources are exhausted.”
New Jersey Congressman Tom MacArthur, who co-chairs the task force, said the addiction epidemic’s impact on the foster care system is one more reason for lawmakers to focus in a bipartisan manner on tackling these issues.
“These are problems that are so big, if we don’t solve them together we won’t solve them at all,” MacArthur said during Monday’s roundtable, which was focused on the impact of the opioid and heroin crisis on children and adolescents.
In addition to Forkey, the task force heard from Christopher Jones, director of the Division of Science Policy in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and Joseph Lee, medical director of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation Youth Continuum in Hazelden, New York.
Jones told the assembled lawmakers that drug use among children between ages 12 and 17 appears to be declining, but he stressed that prevention needs to remain a top priority and focus.
“It’s well-documented that when younger people initiate drug use, they’re much more likely to have serious drug problems later on,” he said.
Lee and Forkey said identifying children at risk of addiction and intervening as early as possible is one way to try to curtail the crisis.
“Addiction is not about drugs; it’s about people,” Lee said. “If we emphasize drugs and not people, we will repeat the cycle.”
After the roundtable, MacArthur said the meeting helped reinforce his belief that more needs to be done to curtail the supply of legal and illegal opioids. He noted that 80 percent of the world’s opioid drugs are sold in the United States, a nation with only 4 percent of the world’s population.
“That is the crux of the problem,” he said. “People are getting addicted legally and feeding (their addiction) illegally.”
Among the ways he wants to tackle the problem is educating doctors about alternative methods of treating pain, limiting initial doses of opioid painkillers, and reviewing laws for drug possession in order to target and appropriately punish drug dealers rather than addicts.
While MacArthur said he is proud of the work the task force has done in the last year, including its recently unveiled legislative agenda, combating the epidemic remains a daunting challenge.
The impact of addiction on children is one example, as more children of drug-addicted parents enter foster care. Those children also are more prone to become addicted themselves.
“Sometimes it feels like we’re shoveling snow in the middle of a blizzard,” MacArthur said.
Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick, who is co-vice-chairman of the committee, also said the country is beginning to realize the massiveness of the problem.
“I feel like we’re so far behind on this,” Fitzpatrick said during the roundtable discussion. “I think it was ignored for a long time because of the stigma factor. It was always somebody else’s kid or somebody else’s problem. But now it’s our neighbor’s kid or our own kids. It’s kind of creeped up to this point and now it’s impacting all sorts to communities.”
Enjoying our content? Become a Bucks County Courier Times subscriber to support stories like these. Get full access to our signature journalism for just 44 cents a day.