“No matter what you’ve been through, when you walk in our door, you’re family.”
For Stephanie Anuszewski, unconditional love is key to caring for her 11 children, including four children adopted out of foster care. One of those children, David, was born addicted to opioids.
Stephanie, of Scranton, Pennsylvania, adopted David in 2013. Now 7 years old, David was born with telltale signs of opiate withdrawal including respiratory issues and difficulty with motor skills. His baby teeth grew in damaged and prone to cavities, which his dentist ascribed to prenatal drug use. All four of Stephanie’s adopted children are biological siblings. Their birth mother lost custody of her children when she overdosed in public on prescription pain meds and other substances. Police found her on the side of the road, with David in a baby carriage next to her.
Across the country, thousands of children like David and his siblings are entering foster care because one or both parents are addicted to opioids. The numbers paint a startling portrait: Between 2012 and 2016, the number of children in foster care increased by over 10 percent – bringing the total number of children in care to nearly half a million.
This upsurge disrupted a decade-long downward trend. In the last eight years, the number of child removals in which substance abuse is a factor has nearly quadrupled, particularly in regions with higher levels of opioid prescribing and opioid deaths.
In Indiana, one of the states with the biggest increases in their foster care population, experts attribute the sudden influx to the opioid epidemic.“This isn’t a trickle. This isn’t a wave. It’s a tsunami,” Indianapolis Judge Marilyn Moores said in an interview with NBC. “It seems like there’s a whole generation of people disappearing.”
The result? In many states, an overburdened child welfare system ill-equipped to meet the rising need. As children flood the foster care system, budgets are stretched, caseworkers are overloaded, and safe homes that can meet kids’ needs are limited.
“My foster home is closed currently because I’m at capacity,” Stephanie says. Since 2008, she has fostered more than 20 children. But across the country, the demand for suitable homes far outpaces the availability.
Congress has recognized the urgent need for reform, particularly by directing resources toward prevention services for parents and families so that children do not have to enter foster care in the first place. In February, the Family First Prevention Services Act was signed into law, providing funds for preventive services such as in-home training, family therapy, and substance abuse programs. In March, Congress raised the funding level for Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act state grants from $25 million to $85 million. Partly in response to the opioid crisis, the funds will help states protect infants exposed to controlled substances.
These measures are only a start. States must invest in evidence-based drug treatment, mental health, and counseling programs that help keep families together. For kids who must depend on out-of-home care, leaders have to re-engineer foster care systems so that they actually provide the stability young people need.
“Every child deserves to know that someone loves them and will get them where they need to be,” Stephanie says. We need to create a future where that kind of support is available to every child.