Fentanyl Use, Children and the Foster Care System
By Rasha Aly and Sherri Candelario, Ph.D.
Kate’s House Foundation serves parents in recovery from addiction or substance use disorder. The effects of one parent’s drug use span generations. We help people in recovery from substance use disorder by providing safe housing in secure neighborhoods. We find that the majority of people we serve are parents. While parents are recovering from substance use, their absence from their children’s lives creates trauma. We find that substance use harms the youngest members of a family. Kate’s House has served thousands of parents who have lost custody of their children due to drug use and subsequent incarceration.
Each client has a story that often involves small children.
When a parent is struggling with addiction, and particularly when the justice system becomes involved, the state will step in to protect the children. Often, these parents do not have the legal support system to assure that they retain rights. If parents are incarcerated, children immediately are placed outside the home. If there is a loving extended family, that is the best option. Unfortunately, that is not always the case.
We want to introduce you to one of our residents. Angela is a pseudonym, but her story can be any story.
The stare was fierce, angry. Angela had slid down the doorway to her bedroom all the way to the ground. She grasped at the wooden floor and sat down, cradling her knees in her arms. Her hands couldn’t stop fidgeting, but she continued to stare.
The child welfare caseworker, Brittany Hines, stood over Angela, not knowing what to do. She understood Angela’s resentment, her bitterness. But Brittany could not leave Levi with his parents one more night. It was too risky.
Levi wasn’t even three weeks old. He was born a week in December, , The air was chilly and snowing. Brittany was going to have to cover Levi, who was already dressed in a diaper, up with a blanket, and place him in a car seat, then take him to her car. Levi had not been cared for appropriately and there was nothing in the home that indicated that an infant lived in the house.
This was the worst part of her job. Taking babies, children away from their parents. At least, Brittany knew little Levi, who had spent 20 days in the NICU suffering from withdrawal symptoms, after he was born, would be going to his maternal grandparents. Unlike other foster children, he wasn’t far away from his parents. His older brother was already two. Another case worker, who had been working the same case before Brittany had taken away reason from the hospital when it was clear that Georgie was addicted from his mother’s substance use.
The hospital staff was not supposed to have let Angela leave with Levi. Someone from child services office was supposed to be there to take him. But there was a miscommunication. Someone dropped the ball. And when Brittany called the office to make sure Levi was safe, and discovered he wasn’t there, she had immediately called her supervisor, fearful. She was worried something would happen to Levi. Without hesitation, her supervisor gave her the go ahead and take Levi. They had the evidence they would need in court: the positive drug tests, the child protective service reports, and the hospital records.
According to statistics from the National Center on Substance and Child Welfare, 38.9% of children, are removed from their parents due to substance use.
Brittany tried to encourage Angela. “You can do it,” she said. “How about going to treatment? That would be a great step toward your health and regaining custody of your family.”
Angela slowly shook her head, “No.”
“I will go if I can take the baby with me.”
Now, it was Brittany’s turn to shake her head. “Your case worker can bring the boys to visit you, but you need to get healthy first.”
Angela began using drugs at the age of 12 and rapidly progressed to meth and heroin. As Angela’s substance use progressed, meth, heroin laced fentanyl were her drugs of choice. Fentanyl is in the family of opioid drugs. Since the 1990s, opioid drugs such as morphine are commonly prescribed pain relievers for serious pain relief. Fentanyl, a member of the opioid family is up to 100x more potent than morphine. Fentanyl is typically prescribed to cancer patients or in following surgery and is carefully monitored in the hospital setting. Fentanyl is now found as a drug of abuse on the streets. The U.S. Drug Administration notes that as little as two mg of fentanyl is considered a potential lethal dose. This represents a few granules of a drug.
Fentanyl use is rampant in the US. Unfortunately, it is often manufactured and mixed in with any number of street drugs: from marijuana to cocaine. People are unwittingly exposed to an often-fatal dose of fentanyl when they are feeding their habits with other common street drugs. Deaths from fentanyl rose to 71,000 in 2021, exacerbated by the pandemic. Most people who are using substances are unaware of the deadly risk of their street drugs laced with fentanyl
Angela’s children are traumatized by the loss of their parent, even before they can understand what happened to their caregiver. Information from the Child Welfare Information Gateway indicate that up to 50% of youth, in the foster system use street drugs. These kids have challenges–from trauma in their birth home, loss of a parent to potential mistreatment in the foster homes. Studies also show that the children, in foster care, start using drugs at an earlier age than their peers who are out of the foster system.
When we provide medical care and treatment for parents, we heal families and stop the cycle of poverty, housing loss and addiction.
Substance abuse harms families for generations. When we care for the parents, we can limit the harm to their children. Housing with a harm reduction model is the first step to helping struggling parents.