Heroin Epidemic Drives Spike In Foster Care, Could Cause Orphanages To ‘Come Back’

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Steve Birr Vice Reporter
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The opioid epidemic crippling the U.S. is wreaking havoc on the lives of the children of addicts and beginning to overwhelm state foster care programs.

Social workers are warning that the heroin crisis is already worse than what the U.S. experienced during the crack-cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and early 1990s. The epidemic is affecting individuals of every socioeconomic background and race, meaning no one is immune to the impact it is having on society. Experts say the addiction to opioids becomes so strong, many addicts begin to completely neglect their children, in some cases selling food, toys and even their kids’ beds to get enough money for another fix, reports The Wall Street Journal.

In states hit particularly hard by the opioid crisis, social services are becoming overwhelmed by the need for child care. Officials in Ohio say that opioids are the main driver of a 19 percent spike in the number of kids removed from parental custody for foster care since 2010.

“Honestly, if something doesn’t happen with this addiction crisis, we can lose a generation of kids,” Robin Reese, executive director of Lucas County Children Services, told The Wall Street Journal. “God knows I would hate to see orphanages come back, but the child-protection system is being inundated now.”

Health officials revealed Dec. 8 that for the first time ever, there were more deaths related to heroin than gun homicides in 2015, contributing to the first drop in U.S. life expectancy since 1993. This is largely behind a 40 percent increase in the number of foster care cases in Vermont between 2013 and 2016. The number of children in foster care in West Virginia, a state also leveled by the current epidemic, increased by 24 percent between 2012 and 2016.

Relatives of addicts, particularly grandparents, are also having to adopt or care for their grandchildren at a high rate due to the crisis. It is upending the lives of countless children across the country, who deal with emotional trauma long after leaving their parents, according to officials.

Children born to addicted parents are also directly suffering from their parent’s chemical dependence. One child, now in the custody of his grandparents with his older siblings, was born with an addiction to opioids. The grandparents said he suffered from ailments over his first year and had to be monitored for underdeveloped lungs.

A record 33,000 people died from opioid overdoses in 2015, an increase of 5,000 over 2014. The emergence of fentanyl, a painkiller 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine, and carfentanil, an elephant tranquilizer approximately 10,000 times stronger than morphine, is contributing to the disturbing year-over-year spikes in opioid deaths.

“The presence of carfentanil in illicit U.S. drug markets is cause for concern, as the relative strength of this drug could lead to an increase in overdoses and overdose-related deaths, even among opioid-tolerant users,” according to the NDTA. “Public health officials maintain that fentanyl is contributing to most of this increase [overdoses].”

Heroin overdoses tripled between 2010 and 2014, according to the 2016 National Drug Threat Assessment (NDTA), released by the DEA Dec. 6. Use of prescription painkillers is now more widespread in the U.S. than using tobacco. Many people who overdose on substances like heroin began with a dependence on prescription painkillers, but switch after building high tolerances that made them too expensive.

The substance currently accounts for roughly 80 percent of drug fatalities. The U.S. suffered the deadliest year on record for fatal drug overdoses, which claimed 52,404 lives in 2015.

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