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March 2016Vol. 17, No. 1Parental Heroin Use and the Foster Care System

Parent substance use is one of the root causes of the rising number of younger children entering foster care. Stateline, the daily news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts, recently published an article about the opioid epidemic in several States and its impact on child welfare cases.

Although it is not clear how many child welfare cases can be positively linked to parental substance or alcohol abuse in the United States, Dr. Nancy Young, director of the National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare, believes that the many child welfare cases are driven by parental addiction to drugs, as reported by caseworkers and judges across the country. Numbers emerging from different States indicate that heroin use is straining child protective systems. Here are some key findings:

  • In Ohio, 23 percent of child welfare cases investigated in 2013 involved heroin or cocaine.
  • In Indiana, the spike in children coming into State custody was associated with drug use, especially heroin.
  • In Vermont, substance use prompted more than a third of phone calls to the State's child protection hotline.

Reunification with substance abusing parents may be marked by uncertainty and stress due to restricted time frames for treatment and recovery. The article notes that long waiting times to enter treatment and the likelihood of relapses may also limit a parent's ability to regain custody. Several States are addressing these challenges by developing family drug courts to monitor parents' progress towards recovery and by testing and implementing new addiction services to improve outcomes for families. Examples of State programs that are making a difference include:

  • Ohio: Launched the Maternal Opiate Medical Support Project, which engages expecting mothers in a combination of counseling, Medication-Assisted Treatment, and case management
  • Illinois: Adopted a "Recovery Coach" program that assists parents in navigating addiction treatment and accessing additional support, such as parenting classes and finding jobs and housing
  • Vermont: Expanded a program that wraps more support around parents, ensuring that parents start treatment

In many innovative programs, caseworkers and judges collaborate in overseeing cases. Key approaches to effective family services include creating extra accountability in court, securing access to treatment services, and helping a parent stay clean and/or sober.

"How Heroin is Hitting the Foster Care System" is available on the Pew Charitable Trust website at