About half of opioid overdose deaths occur among men and women ages 25 to 44. It’s reasonable to assume that many are parents. Statistics can’t tally the trauma felt by a seven-year-old who calls 911 to get help for an unconscious parent, or the responsibility undertaken by a twelve-year-old to feed and diaper a toddler sibling, or the impact of school absences and poor grades on a formerly successful high school student. Parental overdoses have an immediate impact on children, but there is also a cumulative impact as these children become adults and are themselves at risk from the same influences that drove their parents to drugs, overdoses, and early deaths. Who are these children and adolescents?
- Newborns whose mothers are addicted to opioids. These babies may undergo withdrawal themselves and need special treatment.
- Children of all ages at risk for accidental ingestion or inhalation of toxic substances.
- Children living with an addicted parent, dealing with constant uncertainty and fear.
- Children who have taken over the role of family caregiver for younger siblings or for their addicted parents.
- Children who are removed from their homes and placed in foster or kinship care. Some of these children have unmet mental health care needs.
- Very young children exposed to toxic levels of stress that impair brain development.
No one knows how many of these vulnerable children there are in the U.S. because no one is counting. They remain hidden in families with addiction until a crisis erupts and law enforcement or child welfare agencies get involved. When relatives are unable to take in these children, foster care is the next option. In 2016, about 274,000 children entered the foster care system, 22,000 more than in 2012. One-third of those youngsters were removed from their homes because at least one parent had a drug abuse issue. Integrating child-centered policies into prevention and treatment programs is essential. We need targeted research that draws from the fields of addiction treatment, child development, family therapy, mental health, child welfare, law enforcement, and others to determine the best evidence-based solutions.