The number of children in North Carolina entering foster care because of parents using drugs has increased by a remarkable 41 percent from 2012 to 2016, according to figures from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.
The figures come as federal, state and local officials try to respond to the opioid crisis, which includes both illegal and prescription drugs.
In fiscal year 2012, the number of people entering foster care because of parental drug use was 1,531, or 31 percent of the 4,857 children in foster care that year. That number increased steadily through 2016, when 2,159 children were in foster care because of parents’ using drugs, about 38 percent of the 5,721 children in foster care. The 2016 number represents a 41 percent increase from 2012.
About two-thirds of the total increase in the number of children in foster care, 628 of 964, is linked to parental drug use.
The direct link to opioid use is not yet strictly quantifiable. Local social services boards are not required to keep that kind of information, but beginning Monday, that will change when local social services agencies begin collecting information under the new Substance Affected Infants plan. The plan requires health care providers who deliver infants who test positive for exposure to drugs or alcohol to report those findings to local departments of social services.
Social services then will take that report and, after further screening, determine whether the affected child needs to be referred for a plan of care or recommended for foster care. County social services boards also must keep records related to referrals and how each specific agency followed up.
What’s coming next?
Local agencies are likely to see more foster cases in part because of the opioid crisis, said Dustin Lowell, head of child protective services for Orange County. The new rules will require social workers to track opioid use and better determine its effect on children in the foster system, Lowell said.
The new requirements will help because the referrals will give social workers more information “to try and prevent any further neglect and try to address substance abuse,” said Jovetta Whitfield, assistant director of child and family services for the Durham County Department of Social Services.
“It’s not going to address the issue entirely because there have to be services out there” to help people with opioid addiction, Whitfield said. The referrals might help social services identify families where substance abuse is a problem, but without services, “we are not addressing the problem,” she said.
In 2015, opioids, including prescription drugs, killed 33,000 people, more than any year on record, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. From 2000 to 2015 more than half a million people died from drug overdoses, the CDC states.
The Centers for Disease Control also makes this point about the epidemic: “We now know that overdoses from prescription opioids are a driving factor in the 15-year increase in opioid overdose deaths. Since 1999, the amount of prescription opioids sold in the U.S. nearly quadrupled, yet there has not been an overall change in the amount of pain that Americans report,” the CDC reports. “Deaths from prescription opioids — drugs like oxycodone, hydrocodone, and methadone — have more than quadrupled since 1999.”
In North Carolina, the number of opiate-related deaths increased from 642 in 2005 to 1,110 in 2015, a 73 percent increase, according to figures from the governor’s office. During that period, Durham’s opiate deaths increased from 6 to 17, while Orange County’s decreased from 7 to 6.