Opioid epidemic linked to alarming spike in children sent into foster care

TAMPA — The opioid epidemic in the United States has already been identified as a public health issue and has cost the healthcare industry billions of dollars. Now researchers have identified another grim consequence of the rising numbers of painkiller addicts: children entering the foster care system at higher rates.

In a new study by conducted by scientists at the University of South Florida, researchers analyzed the relationship between the number of children removed from their homes as a result of parental neglect and opioid prescriptions in the state. Using federal data from Florida’s 67 counties between 2012 and 2015 reporting the number children moved into foster care, the authors found that in 2015, the number of children removed from their homes because of parental neglect rose by 129% compared to 2012.

Comparing those numbers to data from the a state database on prescription drug use, researchers found that opioids were prescribed at a nine percent higher rate during the same timespan. The results showed that some counties average 1.5 opioid prescriptions per person each year, compared to one prescription a year for every three people in other counties. Areas that were predominantly white reported a higher rate of prescriptions. Still, despite such drastic differences county-to-county in opioid use, the authors calculated that for every additional 6.7 opioid prescriptions per 100 people, the removal rate of children for parental neglect rose by 32%.

“Through my experience as a foster parent, I’ve seen first-hand how the foster system has been overwhelmed by children removed from homes where the parents are opioid-dependent,” says lead author Dr. Troy Quast in a release. “My goal in this study was to gain insight into the factors behind this surge.”

Such conditions, of course, can be terribly detrimental to children. Research has linked children sent to foster care because of parental neglect are at a greater risk of juvenile delinquency, teen motherhood, mental and physical health problems and adult criminality.

“While the reported drop in opioid prescription rates over the last two years is encouraging, unfortunately it appears illicit opioid use has more than offset the decrease,” says Dr. Quast. “We need to keep affected children in the forefront of our minds when tackling this crisis.”

The full study was published in the January 2018 edition of the journal Health Affairs.