Orphans and the Opioid Epidemic

orphans affected by opioid crisis

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Orphans Because of Opioids

Since its declaration in 2017, the opioid epidemic has claimed millions of lives. As a result, families have been devastated over losing their loved ones, some beyond repair. In addition, the number of children who opioids have been orphaned continues to grow yearly. This article discusses the opioid crisis and how orphans have been impacted the most.

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Who is Most Affected by the Opioid Crisis?

The impact becomes more outstanding as the Opioid Epidemic grows across the nation. More and more people are becoming affected, aside from those with Opioid Use Disorders (OUD). The newest crisis is the number of children in foster care because of a parent’s inability to care for the child or actual death. With the end of a parent, the children are often orphaned as the home is most likely a single-parent one. This leads to issues overwhelming the already taxed foster care system. Now, add treatment, prison, overdoses without dying, violence in the drug world, and many other numbers of things possible when dealing with OUDS. The children are in more trouble than the adults with OUDs.

Let us look at how parental OUDs are impacting the children, the overwhelmed foster care system, facts on the direct impact on children, and how we can help as we move forward. Unless the Opioid Epidemic is halted, all of these concerns will continue to grow tax on more and more already overwhelmed systems. Learn more about how CPS or other governmental agencies get involved in opioid addiction issues.

Parental OUD Impact

According to the American Society for the Positive Care of Children (American SPCC), more than 115 people in the United States die from an opioid overdose every day.

Also, the economic burden of prescription opioid misuse alone is over $78 billion a year. Opioid overdoses have increased 30 percent from July 2016 through September 2017. This is now a “public health crisis with devastating consequences,” says the American SPCC.

According to April Dirks in an interview with NPR, parents’ drug use and the response to it have torn families apart. Controlled prescription drugs (CPDs) are still responsible for the most drug-involved overdose deaths and are the second-highest used substance in the United States, says the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).

This is topped only by Fentanyl and other synthetic opioids and added to heroin, providing all the playgrounds for the opioid crisis today.
As shocking as all of these facts may be, the impact on these parents’ children has not yet been discussed. The continued vicious cycle that grips the parents with the OUDs also snares the sad world of their children and what it is doing to them.

Even the elderly are experiencing opioid addiction.

How Children are Impacted

The National Center for Biology Information, National Library of Medicine, and National Institutes of Health (NCBI-NLM-NIH) reveal the impact of OUDs on children and families has received minimal attention. As American parents struggle with opioid addiction, their children are being put in the foster care system. In Cecil County in Maryland, in August 2017 alone, 33 children were orphaned by parental death overdoses. The Baltimore Sun reports since August 2017, over 100 children have been orphaned because of the opioid epidemic.

Children are the most vulnerable witness to this opioid epidemic. The majority of children, according to NCBI-NLM-NIH, are under five years old, neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) in infants is increasing every year, and accidental poisonings are on the rise to name a few.

Parents with OUDs affect their children with more neglect and deficits in parent-child attachment. They are less likely to be reunited with children taken from the home and placed in the foster care system. In children of all ages, including adolescents, instability in their lives results in detrimental consequences which potentially extend into adulthood.

These detriments may include adverse effects on child and adolescent developmental and health outcomes, family dissolution, a continued environment of violence and all that goes with family drug use, adolescent addiction, necessary additional therapeutic and medicinal assistance, and ongoing behavioral health issues.

More common impacts on children are:

  • Exposure to unsanitary homes.
  • Witnessing domestic violence.
  • Poverty and homelessness.
  • Becoming victims of violence.

Devastating issues for newborns with NAS will be severe withdrawal symptoms, nausea, vomiting, tremors, and seizures. Looking towards the children’s future, they are more likely to suffer from behavioral health disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Other issues most likely suffered into adulthood are behavior and attention problems, social difficulties, and relationship challenges. Everywhere the children will see the opioid epidemic in their parents, people their parents hang out with, extended family with OUDs, and a world where stress and trauma are the accepted norms.

The Ripple Effect states explicitly that the successive waves of loss and trauma experienced by newborns, children, adolescents, and their families will negatively impact them, the foster care system, the medical systems at all levels, and most likely the next generation. When a child of any age is removed from their home, a deep trauma overwhelms all agencies, particularly foster care, from that moment forward.

Foster Care Overwhelmed

West Virginia’s foster care system has been hit the hardest so far. Approximately 6,700 children are in foster care, an increase of 70 percent since 2014. According to Marketplace, child welfare is in a state of crisis. Employees of the state have had children; there are no places to put them, and they have had to keep them in motels over the weekend to keep calling possible placements further and further away until they could find room.

Arrangements are made with the belief the children will return home. Unfortunately, many times this does not happen. According to The Ripple Effect, there is not enough evidence-based solution to work within the time restraints necessary to keep the foster care system working across America.

The other hope is a family member will step in and take the child temporarily while the parent gets treatment for their OUD. Unfortunately, in many of these cases, family members also suffer from SUDs and cannot do so. Long-term care is another issue altogether.

Often, a family member is unable/willing to take the child permanently, making the boy or girl a ward of the state and in need of foster care with permanent placement to follow. To add to the already staggering issues, the children often suffer from substance withdrawal if an infant or the addict’s “lifestyle” if older. Adolescents may already have SUDs and need specialized care.


In 2017, 2.2 million children were affected by the opioid epidemic: either parental OUD or their own, according to The Ripple Effect. Another staggering fact is that 2 million children were affected by parental OUDs. This includes losing a parent to overdose, having a parent in jail or prison, being removed and put in foster care, or still living with a parent with OUD.

To put the number of children affected in perspective, this is eleven times more than those with diabetes, more than those with autism, and 1/3 of those who have asthma. The Ripple Effect gives the number of 2.2 million children broken down as 28 out of every 1,000 children in the United States were affected by opioids.

Individually by state, West Virginia was the highest, with 54 out of 1,000 affected. Second is New Hampshire, with 51 out of 1,000 affected. The third is Vermont, with 46 out of 1,000 affected. In contrast, California is the lowest, with only 20 out of 1,000 affected. To break down even further, 1.6 million of the 2.2 million children affected were under 12.

Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE)

An adverse childhood experience (ACE) label is now being used to define any traumatic experiences which may cause adverse effects on children. For example, those living with a parent with an OUD are considered an ACE. Other ACEs include abuse, neglect, loss or separation from a parent, or any exposure to violence.

ACEs can harm young children by interfering with brain development in all areas. This may cause learning disabilities, behavioral control issues, and anger, to name just a few. In addition, the children affected by this opioid epidemic and who have had ACE will incur higher expenses in childhood and adulthood. The higher fees will be for health care, child welfare, and special education. The lifetime societal cost is estimated at over 180 billion dollars for those children affected in 2017.

How We Can Help

A new approach is needed sooner rather than later to stop the horrific cycle of parental OUDs, the negative impacts on children of all ages, and the foster care system that is being crippled. The Baltimore Sun calls this new approach “the four pillars of enforcement, treatment recovery and prevention.”

In addition, cross-system collaboration is a more popular term across the country, spurred initially by The Ripple Effect. Both of these and others boil down to a few particular ideas.
According to The Ripple Effect, strategies that keep families together by supporting treatment and recovery for parents and improving household functioning would significantly minimize the massive impact on children. In addition, multi-system agreement on parental progress in recovery must be in place to increase the timeliness of children being reunified with their families or being put in permanent placement.

A start to this is the bipartisan SUPPORT Act of 2018. This coincides with the Family First Prevention Services Act. Both have resources and programs policymakers and community leaders can draw upon to minimize the epidemic’s impact on children.

The ten areas prioritized in these Acts are the following:

• Reduce Stigma
• Coordinate the Response Across Health Care, Law Enforcement, Child Welfare Agencies, and Schools
• Create Protocols
• Provide kinship caregivers and foster parents with tools
• Encourage schools to practice
• Research the needs
• Increase Mental Health Services
• Invest in Evidence-Based Programs
• Encourage Integrated Health and Social Services
• Reduce Geographic and Ethnic Disparities

Peering Through the Looking Glass

OUD treatment availability must be increased. In addition, Government officials must put integrated long-term support and services in place to help continue parental recovery and adolescent prevention so the cycle of opioid addiction can be stopped.

As time progresses, the hope is to see governmental agencies working together to help the opioid epidemic. This, in turn, will help the children, families, living areas, and agencies to gain a clearer perspective, assist more people and make a more considerable difference over time. Hopefully, we can all work together to make this happen.

If you or a family member or friend need assistance, please make the call. So many individuals are here to help you. The person in need of this assistance deserves it. The friends and family of the person deserve it. So reaching out-it is ok to need help. All of us do from time to time..


[1] Baltimore Sun
[2] The Ripple Effect
[3] NPR.org: Children going into foster care.
[4] West Virginia’s Opioid Problem
[5] DEA.gov Report
[6] The Impact of the Opioid Epidemic on Children and Adolescents
[7] The Opioid Crisis and It’s Effect on Children

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