The Impact of Drug Abuse on Foster Care: A Historic Trend

The reasons why children enter foster care have always been varied and are often difficult to rationalize. But recent trends in society are changing the status quo and having a profound effect on the way children enter, exit and return to foster care. This blog will explain the impact of drug abuse on the current state of foster care.

drug abuseFoster care’s primary mission – providing a suitable home environment for children in need – has stood the test of time, but many other aspects of foster care in the US have evolved substantially since its inception in our early history. Some of the most dramatic differences between past and present lie in the reasons children enter foster care.

In the past, foster care was primarily intended to serve children who had lost their families or whose families were financially or materially unable to provide for them. According to many first-hand accounts, children were most likely to remain in foster care temporarily while their biological parents sought better wages and improved living conditions. If we fast forward to the present, however, we find that that’s no longer the case.

What Impact Does Drug Abuse Have on Foster Care?

Recent numbers from the US Department of Health and Human Services indicate that between 1/3 and 2/3 of all child maltreatment cases involve parents who are addicted to drugs. That number is worrisome in its own right, but it looms much larger when compared with the fact that children who are removed from households where drug abuse is common tend to remain in foster care longer than children who are not.

Unfortunately for all children, drug abuse has been on the rise in New Jersey for more than two decades. The upward trend in drug abuse correlates with an increase in the number of parents who are deemed unfit to provide proper care for their children and as a result, an increase in the number of children entering and often remaining in foster care.

A First-Hand Account of the Impact of Drug Abuse on a Foster Care

A, a former child in foster care in New Jersey, was placed in her grandmother’s care when her mother became addicted to heroin. She found out at an early age that addiction is a crippling disease.

“My mother had given her life over to one of the most addicting drugs, heroin,” she wrote in an essay about her formative years. “Most teenagers’ only worries are doing chores and completing homework. My worry was wondering if my mom was going to be breathing the next day.”
After a series of ordeals that involved an overdose and a suicide attempt, A’s mother finally committed herself to a drug abuse rehabilitation clinic.

“Slowly, week by week, my mother was getting better, and becoming the mom that I had grown up missing. When she was released for completing her six months in the program, she came home. I was so proud of her for conquering the battle of addiction,” she wrote.

With her mother’s graduation from drug rehabilitation, A was able to exit foster care. “However, I never paid attention to the statistics of relapses among heroin addicts,” she wrote. “It was no longer than two weeks after coming home, seeing her secret stashes throughout the house, and encountering her old so-called ‘friends,’ [that] her habit continued.”

The Impact of Drug Abuse on Foster Care Creates an Unnerving Trend

The number of people who, like A’s mother, were admitted to drug rehabilitation centers for heroin and painkiller addiction – nearly 24,000 in 2010 – was more than the amount of people admitted for addiction to all other drugs combined. What’s more, sales of prescription painkillers, which experts agree is the surest path leading to heroin abuse, have quadrupled since 1999.

The magnitude and severity of the addiction problem in New Jersey is illustrated by the fact that, in a state known for its dense roadway congestion, more people have died from drug overdoses in recent years than from motor vehicle accidents. The majority of those overdose deaths, just like the majority of drug rehabilitation admissions, were caused by addiction to prescription painkillers and heroin.

drug abuseUS states are currently contributing $24 billion each year to treat and prevent this type of drug abuse. It’s telling that upward of $5 billion, or more than 20 percent of that money is spent on drug-abuse related child welfare costs.

What Has Led to the Uptick in Heroin and Painkiller Abuse and its Resulting Effect on Children Entering Foster Care?

  • An increase in the availability of different types of pain medication. As recently as two or three decades ago, doctors were known for under-recognizing and under-treating pain. Pain medication became more prevalent when the medical community made pain management a bigger priority.
  • Increasing emphasis on patient satisfaction. More doctors are issuing prescriptions for painkillers based primarily on their patients’ requests, and less on their own professional assessments. Many doctors today feel this can jeopardize medicine’s bottom line – patient well being – and their opinions may be valid. A recent study identified a clear correlation between improved patient satisfaction and increased patient death.
  • Improper prescribing techniques. This practice can often come as a result of the growing emphasis on patient satisfaction, but is also affected by doctor oversight or inattention. Many reports blame the readily available supply of black market prescription pills on qualified but unscrupulous doctors.
  • Cheap, abundant heroin. A much shorter journey from poppy field to addict has made it simple for Colombian drug smugglers to improve the purity and lower the price of heroin. Smugglers are flooding New Jersey with 50-60% pure heroin – a top shelf product compared with the 10% pure heroin common in the 1970s and 80s – through entrance points like Newark Liberty International Airport, and ports in Newark, Elizabeth and Camden.
  • For these reasons, heroin and painkiller abuse has shifted from its historic epicenter in low-income, inner city areas and into suburban and rural locales. More parents tumbling through cycles of rehabilitation and relapse means there are more children subjected to a mirroring cycle where entering and exiting foster care becomes an all-too familiar routine.

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