After more than a decade of decreasing, the national foster care caseload rose by 10% between 2012 and 2016. Many public officials and commentators have blamed this increase on parental substance use, especially due to to the opioid crisis, but evidence has been lacking on the national level to support this conjecture. A new report from the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services provides new evidence linking substance abuse with increasing foster care caseloads. It also highlights the daunting challenges facing those professionals at the interface of child welfare and substance abuse in hard-hit areas, and highlights the urgency of helping them meet these challenges..
The ASPE researchers obtained data on drug overdose deaths and hospitalizations and child welfare indicators for all of the counties in the US. They conducted quantitative analysis and statistical modeling to assess the relationship between substance abuse and child welfare. They also conducted interviews and focus groups with child welfare administrators and practitioners, substance use treatment administrators and practitioners, judges and other legal professionals, law enforcement officials, and other service providers who work with families affected by substance abuse in counties that are being hard-hit by the opioid crisis. Their key findings include:
- Caseloads: There is a correlation between the severity of a county’s drug crisis and the burden on its child welfare system. The researchers found that when related factors are controlled, counties with higher rates of overdose deaths and drug hospitalizations had higher child welfare reports, substantiations, and foster care entries.
- Nature of Cases: The researchers also found that higher rates of substance abuse overdoses corresponded to more “complex and severe child welfare cases,” as measured by a greater proportion of children with maltreatment reports that were removed from their homes. Substance abusing parents have multiple issues including domestic violence, mental illness and extensive history of trauma. Professionals in hard-hit areas described great difficulty in reunifying families due to the multigenerational nature of the epidemic (reducing the availability of kin caregivers) as well as the weakening and loss of community institutions including churches over time.
- Treatment Challenges: Several major challenges affect agencies’ ability to get treatment for substance-abusing parents. These include cursory and delayed assessments resulting in treatment delays; misconceptions about Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT), which has been found to be the most effective treatment for opioid use disorder; and lack of treatment options matching parents’ needs, including family-friendly treatment options.
- Systemic Barriers: Agencies are struggling to meet families’ needs due to multiple systemic factors including inadequate staffing leading to unmanageable caseloads, shortages of foster homes, and difficulty coordinating between systems and states (in the many counties that border other states).
This study has many policy implications. Unfortunately, all of them involve the need for increased financial resources both within the child welfare system and beyond it. The nation’s supply of effective drug treatment needs a major boost. Child welfare systems need financial help to improve assessments, hire new staff and train all staff on substance abuse and treatment, and increase the availability of high quality placement options for the children affected by the substance abuse crisis.
- Treatment. More treatment programs are needed to meet the needs of parents involved with child welfare. In particularly, the study documented shortages of MAT and family-friendly treatment options. Clearly the opioid crisis is much broader than its impact on child welfare and requires a much broader response. In a full-page editorial on April 22, the New York Times stated that Congress has taken only “baby steps” so far in addressing this crisis by appropriating only a few billion dollars over the past few years. The Times quotes Andrew Kolodny, co-director of opioid policy research at Brandeis University, that “at least $6 billion a year is needed for 10 years to set up a nationwide network of clinics and doctors to provide treatment with medicines like buprenorphine and methadone.” Supporters of the recently–passed Family First and Prevention Services Act, which allows Title IV-E foster care funds to be used for drug treatment and other services to keep families together, have exaggerated its potential to help parents obtain treatment. If the treatment slots do not exist, money to purchase treatment won’t help. Moreover, many or most parents involved with child welfare already have Medicaid or other insurance that could pay for treatment if it existed.
- Assessment. It is crucial that parents involved with child welfare receive thorough assessments of their substance abuse and other needs. The lack of proper assessments is a also problem for parents and systems not affected by the opioid crisis. A change in the standards of child welfare practice requiring a thorough assessment, conducted by a licensed professional, for each parent with a child in foster care, is necessary. Of course this would require additional funding.
- Training. Lack of knowledge among professionals about the efficacy of different treatment options can prevent parents from obtaining the most effective treatment. Child welfare and court staff need training in substance abuse and treatment options just as they need training in mental health, domestic violence, and other issues facing many of their clients.
- Staffing. In areas that are overwhelmed by cases due to the substance abuse crises, staff shortages lead to burnout, which in turn leads to more departures and increased shortages. These staff shortages are dangerous to children and to staff themselves and should not be allowed to continue.
- Foster placements. More placements are clearly needed in some hard-hit areas, but it is not likely that enough traditional foster homes can be found, especially in light of the widespread nature of the substance abuse epidemic in some of these areas. That’s why we may need to look at new placement options, including family-style group homes and professional foster homes for four to six children, including large sibling groups.
The new study from ASPE has received a shocking lack of attention. It adds new, more rigorously collected evidence to the avalanche of media reports that have documented the impact of the substance abuse crisis on children and families. So far, the nation has not responded to this crisis with the urgency it demands. We will pay a high cost in the future–in broken families and damaged children–if we don’t provide the needed resources now.