One expert estimates that for every child in foster care due to a parent’s addiction there are 18 to 20 children who have been informally taken in by family members.
When parents are living with opioid addiction—or even trying to establish their lives in recovery—it can take a toll on the whole family, from kids to grandparents, as roles are redefined.
Donna Butts, the executive director of Generations United, a Washington, D.C.-based organization, has seen how families have coped with drug epidemics fueled by cocaine or meth. This time, she told CBS News, feels different.
“With the opioid epidemic, it seems so much more severe and, in some ways, more hopeless,” she said. “Which is why I think the grandparents and other relatives that are stepping forward are playing such a critical role because the hope is with the children.”
Oftentimes family members will step up to care for the children of people who are addicted without going through the formal foster care system, making it difficult to get an estimate on how many families have been rearranged because opioid addiction.
The foster care statistics themselves are overwhelming; Butts estimates that for every child in foster care because of a parent’s addiction there are 18 to 20 children who have been informally taken in by family members.
This has financial implications for the family member taking responsibility for the children, usually the grandparents. Twenty percent of grandparents raising grandchildren are living in poverty, and 40% are older than 60, which often means they are retired or semi-retired and living on a fixed income.
In addition, many children have been exposed to trauma, and their grandparents have been through their own traumatic experiences in seeing their child battle addiction.
“What they really need is to understand the impact of trauma on the children and try to help support them as they deal with that. Also, they need to have access to trauma-informed services, the services that can really help them to overcome what they’ve experienced,” Butts said.
However, she noted that having stable grandparents can really help children overcome the harms of having a parent battling addiction.
Even for parents who are working to get clean, keeping custody of the children can be challenging.
Jillian Broomstein, of New Hampshire, was in a methadone program when her son was born. Because the baby tested positive for opioids, he was taken by the Division for Children, Youth and Families. Broomstein had just one year to be off opioids and in a stable housing situation, or she would risk losing custody permanently, according to WGBH.
“I cannot stress enough that 12 months is a really short window for somebody who’s in early recovery,” says Courtney Tanner, who runs a New Hampshire recovery home where pregnant women and new moms can live with their babies while getting sober.
Situations like Broomstein’s are too common, she said.
“Here in New Hampshire what I have seen is a mom can be enrolled in this program and compliant in treatment and they are giving birth to a child and that child is still being removed and put into foster care.”
However, given the right resources, people in recovery are able to be reunited with their children.
“We see a lot of that,” said Dr. Frank Kunkel, the president and chief medical officer of Accessible Recovery Services. “We see a lot of people that spin out of control. They’re involved with the judicial system and all that. And we see grandma have the kids for a while. Then they’ll get back on track with things legally, and they’ll get on our medications, and they’ll get in seeing their therapist, and they’ll turn their life around. We see that every day.”