Western States Face Spikes in Drug Use, Foster Care

Last August at a campaign stop, President Donald Trump made the opioid crisis part of the dismal portrait of America he purported to change.

“We’re going to take all of these kids … that are totally addicted and they can’t break it,” he promised at a Columbus, Ohio, town hall meeting. “We’re going to work with them, we’re going to spend the money, we’re gonna get that habit broken.”

Trump is right that kids are at the center of the opioid crisis. But not because they are the ones doing most of the drugs.

The terrifying uptick in opiate use and overdoses, and the continued pervasive use of methamphetamines, is largely the province of American adults. And now, national data suggests that the growing rate of dangerous drug use is fueling a growing reliance on foster care in America.

In 2010, the number of youth exiting foster care in America began to drop; precipitously at first, then slowly. Little attention was paid, because the overall number of youth in care continued to decline.

In 2012, the number of entries into foster care went up; slowly at first, and then precipitously. Suddenly, the system was taking on more youth and seeing fewer of them leave. The net effect of these has been three straight years where the total number of kids in care has increased.

National data on those removals point to an uptick in dangerous drug use by parents as a principal driver of America’s increasing reliance on the foster care system.

In 2000, 18.5 percent of removals involved parental alcohol or drug use as a contributing factor, according to AFCARS data. By 2010, when exits from care started to slow, it was up to 28.4 percent.

Last year, more than a third of removals (34.4 percent) involved alcohol or drug use as a contributing factor.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services conceded in its release of annual data last year that “it appears that parental substance use may have contributed to the growth in the child welfare population.” Aside from the data, the department noted, several child welfare directors in states with high foster care increases had reported that “a rise in parental substance use is likely a major factor driving up the number of children in foster homes.”

The surge in foster care is a largely untold piece of the well-publicized story about drug use in America. But it portends rising costs and a larger caseload at a time when many states are already struggling to find enough beds for the kids they have in their custody now.

In the series being released this week, The Chronicle of Social Change sought to learn how, and to what extent, state child welfare systems in the American West were impacted by the growing nexus between their world and drug addiction. The rate of reported illicit drug use by adults in the West is higher than any other region in the country, according to figures from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

In Arizona and New Mexico, pregnant moms and newborns are on the forefront of the opioid epidemic.

In Montana, as the White House and the media focus on opioids, a familiar foe continues to bloat the foster care rolls: meth addiction.

And in California, one of the few substance abuse programs targeted at child welfare-involved parents shows promising results.

In all of those states, the foster care system has been more heavily leaned upon. Either the number of new entrants to care has increased, the total number of youth in care is up, or both.

These are just a few stories from the front lines of an intense fight to keep families together as the rate of dangerous drug use escalates.

See part one of the series here. Read part two, on New Mexico, here, and part three, on Montana, here.

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John Kelly
About John Kelly 924 Articles
John Kelly is senior editor for The Chronicle of Social Change.

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