As the opioid epidemic continues to grip the United States, the toll on the littlest victims — the children of addicts — is mounting, new research shows.
“There are many negative aspects to the opioid crisis, but its effect on children is arguably one of the worst,” said study author Troy Quast, an associate professor at the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health.
Sometimes children are removed from their parents due to neglect. Or they may no longer have a home because their parents died of an overdose. Some of these youngsters can live with grandparents. But many end up in the already overburdened foster care system.
Quast’s team explored some of the reasons children are removed from the home and how those removals appear linked to the opioid epidemic.
They found that out of every 1,000 kids in Florida, two had to be removed from their homes due to parental neglect in 2015. That’s an increase of 129 percent since 2012, according to the study. During this same period — 2012 to 2015 — the rate of opioid prescriptions increased by 9 percent.
“Higher opioid prescription rates are associated with higher children removal rates in Florida, and the relationship is especially strong for removals for parental neglect and parental drug abuse,” he said. “The relationship is also stronger for counties with relatively high proportions of white residents.”
Nationwide, approximately 2 million people abuse or depend on prescription opioid painkillers like OxyContin and morphine. And more than 33,000 people died due to opioid overdose in 2015, U.S. government statistics show.
Although the study found links between opioid use and children being removed from their homes, it couldn’t prove cause-and-effect.
The researchers collected statewide data on Florida children removed from their homes between 2012 and 2015. They also reviewed state data on the number of opioid prescriptions written. The study did not include heroin use, which is also a leading cause of drug overdose and parental neglect.
The study found that for every additional 6.7 opioid prescriptions written per 100 people living in the state, the rate of removal of children due to parental neglect went up by 32 percent.
Quast said neglect can encompass a number of factors. These include failing to give kids enough to eat, not providing health care, clothing or shelter, or failing to provide age-appropriate supervision. Emotional abuse and parental drug abuse can also be considered parental neglect, he said.
This neglect costs Florida approximately $40 million a year. That figure, said the researchers, doesn’t include ongoing physical or psychological care children may need because of the neglect.
“For kids who are removed, previous research has shown that they are likely to suffer drastically damaged futures. For instance, they typically have worse educational outcomes, are more likely to later get involved in the legal system, and to have children who are eventually removed,” Quast said.
Right now, the foster care system is having difficulty keeping pace with the number of children being removed, he added.
And Florida isn’t the only state struggling with this problem, said Wendy Ellis, a public health expert at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. She said children are suffering in many areas grappling with the opioid epidemic.
“There’s a higher demand for foster care than there are families. In Ohio, there are 14,000 kids waiting for foster homes and only 7,000 are available,” Ellis said.
“Grandparents are taking in children from a number of these families, but these are often elderly people on fixed incomes. Now, they’re trying to navigate early childhood education and health systems, too,” she noted.
Ellis is project director of the university’s Building Community Resilience Collaborative, a five-state project that aims to help kids, families and communities lessen adverse childhood outcomes.
She said a multi-faceted response to this crisis is critical.
“We need to look beyond the epidemic and think about getting to the root of the despair that’s causing people to self-medicate. For many, it’s a loss of economic mobility. People don’t have the means to support themselves. And, unfortunately, we can’t wave a magic wand and turn it around in a few months,” she said.
The study was published Jan. 8 in the journal Health Affairs.
Learn more about the opioid epidemic from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.