How The Opioid Epidemic Is Taking Its Toll On Families: Grandparents Raising Grandkids, Babies In Withdrawal

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Evie Fordham Politics and Health Care Reporter
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  •  An estimated 2 percent of babies in the U.S. are born drug-dependent
  • More than one million U.S. children live with their grandparents, a number that has spiked because of the opioid crisis
  • Organizations are stepping in to help children of all ages whose parents are opioid addicts 

The opioid crisis is taking a substantial toll not only on drug abusers but on their families, including newborn babies who are born addicted to opiates and grandparents who use their retirement savings to raise their grandchildren.

But with those problems come people trying to fix them. Neonatal doctors are working to standardize more effective care for babies suffering from opioid withdrawals, and grandparents who find themselves raising children of drug-addicted parents are plugging into organizations designed to support them.

An estimated 2 percent of babies in the U.S. are born drug-dependent, according to Kaiser Health News. A baby is born with withdrawal symptoms every 15 minutes in the U.S., according to a 2018 Vanderbilt University Research Center study.

Caregivers like Kansas neonatologist Dr. Jodi Jackson are working to standardize “low-tech, high-touch treatment” for babies experiencing withdrawal symptoms because of mothers’ drug use, reported KHN.

“Many hospitals have no standard of practice,” Jackson said, according to KHN. “What happened 10, 15 years ago is babies were immediately removed from the mom, and they were put in an ICU warmer with bright lights with nobody holding them … Of course, they are going to be upset about that! And so the risk of withdrawal is much higher.”

That is why Jackson recommends that hospitals across her state prioritize that mothers and babies room together in the hospital. She is also working to make sure babies get time being cradled by their mothers or volunteers and are slowly weaned off of opioids to reduce the effects of symptoms like the inability to fall asleep, reported KHN.

In many cases, mothers and fathers are not able to physically comfort newborns in the hospital, so organizations like No Baby Unhugged match volunteers with babies going through withdrawals. The babies often have symptoms including tremors, vomiting and fever and are given opioids like methadone or morphine until they can be weaned off completely, according to HealthLine.

Also affected by opioid-addicted parents are the children being taken in by grandparents after their biological parents overdose or fail to take care of them. More than one million children in the U.S. live with grandparents, a number that has spiked because of the opioid crisis, reported CBS on “60 Minutes.”

The growing trend affects 21,000 children in Utah, the state that an Aug. 19 “60 Minutes” segment examining the issue focused on.

Grandparents in Utah are fighting for custody of their grandchildren who are being neglected by their drug-addicted children. In some cases, 5-year-olds living with a parent must cook microwave meals for their toddler siblings to survive, and 10-year-olds steal items from neighbors’ porches to resell them.

Some of these children who now live with their grandparents have not seen their parents in more than a year. The new living arrangements can be stressful on grandparents, who are often on tight retirement budgets. Organizations like Salt Lake City-based Grandfamilies exist to support these unconventional families.

“Unfortunately opioids is a very hard addiction to overcome,” Grandfamilies director Bacall Hincks told CBS. “So the likelihood of these parents actually overcoming their addictions and coming home and being able to parent is very low.”

Grandfamilies offers activities and community-building meals to give these grandparents and grandchildren a support network. (RELATED: The Opioid Crisis Is Causing A Massive Spike In The Need For Foster Care)

“They’re able to connect with others who are in similar situations and have friends and don’t feel so isolated and alone anymore,” Hincks told CBS.

Follow Evie on Twitter @eviefordham.

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