Opioid Crisis: Removing Infants from Mothers on Medication Assisted Treatment is Misguided

MAT
Image: drugabuse.gov

An NPR story (New Hampshire Mothers Struggling with Opioid Addiction Fight to Keep their Children) aired on June 2, 2018, introduced us to Jillian Broomstein, a New Hampshire mother whose two-week-old infant was removed from her by the state’s child welfare agency. Broomstein was on methodone to combat her addiction to heroin and it was working. She had not taken heroin for months.

Methadone is one of the two medications that is used in Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) for Opioid Use Disorder.  MAT is “the use of medications in combination with counseling and behavioral therapies to provide a whole patient approach to the treatment of substance use disorders.” The medications commonly used to treat opioid addiction in pregnant women include methadone and buprenorphine.

Research has shown that MAT is the most effective treatment for opioid use disorder, at least doubling the rates of abstinence from opioids compared with treatments that use a placebo or no medication. MAT has been recognized by the World Health Organization as the most effective treatment for opioid use disorder. Moreover, MAT is the treatment the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends for pregnant women with opioid use disorder.

Concerns about MAT for pregnant women arise from the fact that their infants may experience neonatal abstinence syndrome. But as the lead author of the ACOG guidance states, “Concern about medication-assisted treatment must be weighed against the negative effects of ongoing misuse of opioids, which can be much more detrimental to mom and baby.” MAT increases adherence to prenatal care and drug treatment and reduces the risk of pregnancy complications. Abrupt withdrawal from opiates or safer substitutes means a mother is more likely to relapse, thus making it less likely that she can reunify with her child. Neonatal abstinence syndrome, on the other hand, is treatable and does not appear to have lasting effects.

Bias against MAT among professionals working with substance-abusing families has been documented often. An excellent federal study, discussed in an earlier post, found that MAT is not always understood or accepted by child welfare professionals, judges or even in the substance abuse treatment community. One reason for such bias may be that many professionals have past experience with other types of drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine, for which MAT is not available

Information on state policies regarding reporting, investigation, and placement of infants exposed to methadone and buphrenorphine is not readily available. A report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration suggests that New Hampshire is not alone, indicating that child welfare agencies “may use a positive toxicology result for methadone or buprenorphine at birth as a presumptive cause for child removal.”

In some states, on the other hand, these cases may not even be reported or investigated. Pennsylvania law requires reporting only if the drug is illegal, although individual hospitals may choose to report other cases. In Massachusetts, for example, the Department of Children and Family Services can screen out a report involving a substance-exposed newborn if the only substance affecting the newborn was methadone, buprenorphine or naltrexone and if the substance was used as part of a treatment program.

But do we know that methadone and buprenorphine are consistent with safe parenting? Unfortunately, there seems to be  no research evidence on this question. We do know that with stable dosing, methadone and buphrenorphine does not cause the euphoric “high” associated with heroin and prescription painkillers.

Removing infants from their mothers who are participating in MAT has many negative consequence. It disrupts the critical attachment process between infant and mother. It may lead discouraged mothers to go cold turkey in order to get their children back. This may lead to relapse and permanent loss of the children.

Instead of automatic removal of the children, new mothers on MAT should be supervised by CPS for at least six months to ensure that they are capable of safe parenting. During that period they should receive intensive services akin to those provided by Kentucky’s Sobriety Treatment and Recovery Teams (START), a program that has been in municipalities in New York, Indiana, Georgia and North Carolina. Each family is paired with a specially-trained CPS worker and a mentor who is in long-term recovery. Caseloads are limited and each family receives weekly visits from both the CPS worker and the mentor for the first 60 days. START has been rated as a promising practice by the California Evidence-Based Clearinghouse for Child Welfare.

Most states, particularly those ravaged by the opioid epidemic, are reporting critical shortages of foster homes. Preventing unnecessary foster care placements, in addition to the obvious benefits for parent-child attachment and long-term sobriety of the parent, will allow these homes to be available for children who really need them.

Opioid Crisis: New federal report shows child welfare impact

opioid crisis
Image: Youth Today

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.