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Beyond the Stigma: Opioid epidemic separating more children from their parents

New Hampshire Sunday News

June 05. 2018 9:16PM

More New Hampshire children are being removed from their parents’ care, living with grandparents and other relatives, and being assessed by the state for abuse and neglect — all as a result of the state’s opioid epidemic.

That’s according to a new report commissioned by New Futures and conducted by the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire.

Kristin Smith, a family demographer at Carsey and research associate professor of sociology, authored the report, compiling data from the state Department of Health and Human Services and the American Community Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Children living with their parents’ addiction are “hidden in the shadows,” Smith said. “They fall behind in school as the trouble at home starts to dominate their lives; they make the 9-1-1 calls; they are shuttled about to live with relatives or in foster care; and they face an uncertain future when their parents can no longer care for them,” she said.

From 2013 to 2016, there was a 21 percent increase — from 9,248 to 11,197 — in the number of child abuse and neglect reports accepted for assessment by the state Division of Children, Youth and Families, the report found. And the percentage of assessments in which substance abuse was a risk factor rose from 41 to 51 percent.

The good news, Smith said, is that fewer than 6 percent of those assessments resulted in a finding of child abuse or neglect.

But the number of children removed from their parents’ care also has risen dramatically, from 358 in 2012 to 547 in 2016, a 53 percent increase. And 60 percent of the children removed had a substance-related allegation in their assessment, double the percentage just four years earlier.

Moira O’Neill, director of the state Office of the Child Advocate, said the report underscores an issue that’s often overlooked in all the attention on the opioid epidemic. “Oftentimes when we think about kids, we think about education and keeping them off drugs,” she said. “But in fact, there’s this huge population of kids who are really feeling the weight of the problem in terms of their loss of parents or their loss of their parents’ ability to take care of them.”

O’Neill likened it to the height of the AIDS crisis in the 1990s, when there were “large numbers of children who were being sort of forgotten,” and who were dealing with a similar sense of shame and secrecy. “So these kids are bearing the weight of their parents’ inability to parent and also all of the social isolation that comes with that,” she said.

So who’s caring for these children?

A growing number of grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings and other extended family members and friends are “stepping forward to care for children when their parents cannot,” Smith said.

At the end of 2012, 667 children were in state custody and placed in out-of-home care; by 2016, that had risen to 997, an increase of 46 percent. One-third of these children were being cared for by relatives; 45 percent were in licensed foster care, including some relatives who have gone through the process to become licensed. And 22 percent were in residential facilities or group homes.

Smith said many children are being raised by relatives outside of DCYF oversight, so it’s likely the true number is even higher.

The American Community Survey estimates that in 2016, nearly 8,000 grandparents were raising grandchildren in New Hampshire, although not all were related to parental substance abuse. Smith said many grandparents are likely eligible for government support, but are unaware that it’s available.

O’Neill said the state’s child welfare system “was already in a great deal of stress” even before the opioid crisis stretched the limits of available resources.

She said what worries her most are the long-term effects on children exposed to parental substance use disorders. Studies have shown such children are at higher risk for depression, diabetes, obesity, poor performance in school and jobs, unemployment and involvement with the criminal justice system, she said.

“Many of these things are predictable.”

But O’Neill said the good news is that the Legislature recently reinstituted funding for voluntary services and prevention programs. She said there are approaches to helping these children that are effective but not expensive, such as home visiting and mentoring programs.

“The one thing we know that really helps kids who are in these scenarios is one single, caring, consistent adult,” she said.

Rebecca Woitkowski, early childhood policy coordinator at New Futures, said the report is “a call to action” for policymakers to fund programs that support and strengthen families, and to adopt prevention strategies.

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