The opioid crisis is at epidemic proportions in the U.S. For example, 12.5 million people misused prescription opioids and 33,091 Americans died from drug overdose in 2015 alone. The following year, 42,000 people in the U.S. died from opioid overdoses. The effects of the opioid epidemic cuts across all ages, races, wealth and geographic location in the country. One of the latest trends to emerge because of the epidemic is the significant increase in the number of children in foster care. This is a sobering fact as the nation focuses on foster care throughout the month of May – National Foster Care Month.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) reported that, for the fourth consecutive year, fiscal year 2017 witnessed an increase in the number of children spending time in the foster care system, nationwide. There were 687,000 children served by the system by the end of the fiscal year, representing an 8 percent increase since fiscal year 2012. “Drug abuse by a parent” had the largest percentage point increase of any of the 15 categories states can report as reasons for removal from home and placement in care.

While the filing system doesn’t allow case workers to specify the type of drug involved, a study released in March by HHS’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) explains that “[m]any in the child welfare field think that parental substance use—including prescription drugs, illicit drugs, and alcohol, but especially opioids—has been the primary cause of the increase in foster care placements.” The size of the increase varied by state, and more than two-thirds of the states experienced an increase in their caseloads. However, six states – Alaska, Georgia, Minnesota, Indiana, Montana and New Hampshire – were the hardest hit, witnessing an increase of more than 50 percent between 2012 and 2016.

Juvenile courts, social workers and others in child welfare services agencies are left scrambling to meet skyrocketing demands for foster care placement. Stories have a familiar refrain from across the country.

  • Georgia
    Earlier this month the new director at Georgia’s Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS), Virginia Pryor, told WSBTV that the department has a record number of children in foster care. The number has risen from 7,600 in 2013 to 15,005 currently. She attributed the increase to the opioid crisis. In Fulton County, Georgia, where Atlanta is located, DFCS had 877 children come into care, which is more than the number of children in the county.
  • Indiana
    Last December, Judge Marilyn Moores, head of the juvenile court in Marion County, Indiana, told NPR that the number of children in foster care grew from 2,500 in 2014 to 5,500 in 2017. She explained that the county’s child welfare workers see “lots and lots of opioid-addicted babies following their releases from NICUs [neonatal intensive care units] where they went through withdrawal from opioid addiction that they suffered in utero.” Children must be placed in homes that are hours away from their birth families because the number of foster homes are limited. The resources are further strained by parents who relapse. The recidivist rate for opioid addiction is approximately 70 percent.
  • Ohio
    Although Ohio wasn’t included among the six states in the ASPE study, it has experienced a significant increase in the number of children placed in foster care. Righting Injustice explains that it also serves as home (U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio) to a multidistrict litigation (MDL) consolidating more than 100 lawsuits filed against opioid manufacturers and distributors by local governments. Last summer, Mother Jones provided an inside look at one of the state’s counties that has been hit hard – Ashtabula County – in its northeast corner. The number of children in the county that were in court custody quadrupled from 69 in 2014 to 279 in 2016.

Throughout the last decade, the opioid epidemic has been fueled by drug companies that flooded the health care system with highly addictive drugs. Those companies also significantly exaggerated the drugs’ benefit and misled the public about their safety and effectiveness. As a result, America became the world’s leader in opioid prescriptions. When authorities began tightening regulations on prescription opioids, illicit drug traffickers stepped in to fill the void for the large number of people addicted to opioids. They escalated the epidemic by bringing into the country heroin and illegally produced opioids, including a particularly deadly form of synthetic fentanyl.

Responding to the opioid crisis has required local municipalities and counties to sustain economic damages and to continue to bear a significant financial burden. As the demand for services from agencies, such as child welfare agencies, increases, resources are stretched thin. Beasley Allen is helping communities hold accountable those that have inflicted such pain and devastation. It has filed lawsuits on behalf of Alabama municipalities and counties, as well as governmental entities in other states including Georgia and Tennessee. The firm also is representing the State of Alabama in its opioid lawsuit against Purdue Pharmaceuticals.

Beasley Allen
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Righting Injustice
Mother Jones

Rhon Jones, Beasley Allen Attorney
Rhon Jones

Rhon heads the Toxic Torts Section and oversees nursing home abuse and neglect cases.

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