Kids Are Increasingly Entering Foster Care Because Of Parental Drug Use

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The number of children entering the foster care system in the United States because of parental drug use has risen dramatically since 2000, a research letter out Monday finds.

Federal data show that the number more than doubled from 2000 to 2017, even as total entries into the system fell, researchers Dr. Angelica Meinhofer and Dr. Yohanis Anglero-Diaz found. The proportion of children entering the system due to parental substance abuse rose from 14% in 2000 to 36% in 2017.

(Courtesy JAMA Pediatrics)
(Courtesy JAMA Pediatrics)

The paper may provide insight into how the opioid epidemic has affected the foster care system.

Between 2000 and 2017, 60% of children entering the foster care system because of parental drug use were age 5 or younger. For removals for other reasons, about 40% were 5 or younger.

The proportions of white children and children from the southern U.S. removed for parental drug use were also significantly higher than the percentages of children removed for other reasons.

Anglero-Diaz, a Boston Children’s Hospital psychiatrist and Harvard Medical School instructor, told WBUR that the age of the children removed because of parental drug use was most striking to her.

“We’re really looking at the youngsters who are still in the early stages of development in terms of social, emotional development [and] attachment to parental figures and caregivers," she said.

Because of this, Anglero-Diaz said the foster care and health care systems likely won't see the full effects of this trend until later on.

“Parental substance use — whenever it’s involved — it typically results in kids having adverse experiences and adverse outcomes, and what we have to keep in mind is we’re only seeing the beginning of this," she said. "Especially given the amount of kids that are entering the system now and might be more vulnerable in the future, we’re going to be seeing a lot more of this in our practice.”

Anglero-Diaz noted that substance abuse could also be an underlying cause of other reasons for removal. “Sometimes, there’s overlap," she said.

She says the problem needs to be combated by going "straight to the source," which she believes is substance abuse, particularly that of opioids.

In addition, Anglero-Diaz said, the U.S. needs better health care and psychiatric care for children and adolescents, especially as the number of children in the foster system rises.

The research comes as Massachusetts assesses how to handle a dramatic increase of kids in care of the state. The Department of Children and Families in May announced it planned to aggressively recruit foster families and implement an expedited approval process.

In a recent WBUR poll, more than half of Massachusetts adults said they know someone who has struggled with an opioid addiction in the last year.

Opioid-related overdose deaths have declined in Massachusetts overall in recent years, according to state data, but still 2,000 people died last year.

This segment aired on July 16, 2019.


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Laney Ruckstuhl is the field producer for Morning Edition. She was formerly a digital producer.


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Deborah Becker Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.



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