The news that America is facing a national health crisis in the form of opioid addiction is well known. Last October President Trump declared a national public health emergency, which was extended for a second time in April. What is starting to emerge now is the exact extent of the damage on the lives of those who struggle with substance abuse along with their families and communities. It will take the collective efforts of legislators, doctors, social workers, specialists, and citizens to combat this epidemic.
May has been National Foster Care Month. As the opioid crisis strains the nation’s child welfare system, below are several ways that Americans can step up to protect and support vulnerable children and families hurt by addiction.
The human and economic costs of this epidemic are staggering. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that every day more than 115 Americans die from prescription opioids, heroin, and fentanyl. A report from The Council of Economic Advisors estimates that in 2015 alone, the economic cost of the opioid crisis was $504 billion; $431.7 billion in mortality costs and $72.3 billion in lost productivity, health care, and criminal justice costs. Research estimates that in 2015, almost 1 million prime-age individuals were not in the labor force because of opioids.
Addiction is also increasing the number of children in foster care, as caregivers are unable to provide the necessary care and stability they need. According to the Administration for Children and Families, out of all the reasons states can report for a child’s removal from his or her home and placement into out-of-home care, drug abuse by a caretaker had the largest percentage point increase from FY2015 to FY2016. In FY2016, over 90,000 children were removed from their homes because a caretaker had a drug abuse issue. As Sally Satel writes, “The jarring visual of the crisis is … an overdosed mom slumped in the front seat of her car in a Walmart parking lot, toddler in the back.”
One of the most important ways Americans can take action in their communities and fight back against the devastation of the opioid crisis is to wrap their arms around children and families affected by substance abuse. While legislators debate the best way to tackle the opioid crisis at the policy level, here are some ways people can get involved now to help children and families in their neighborhoods.
1. Foster or adopt a child. Nationwide the number of children in foster care increased 10 percent from 2012–2016, and some states have seen an increase of over 50 percent of the number of children in foster care in that time. Research done at the state and national level has shown that drug abuse has contributed to that increase of children in care. The number of children waiting for adoption increased 16 percent from 2012 to 2016. There is a need for loving, stable families for these children.
2. Become a licensed respite provider. For those unable to foster or who feel unsure about whether having a child full time in their home is right for them, this might be a good option. Respite providers support foster parents by taking in their foster children for anywhere from one night up to a week or two when foster parents need to travel or just take a break. This gives foster parents valuable rest and helps prevent burnout so they can provide better care for the children in their homes.
3. Support programs like Safe Families for Children. The Safe Families program “creates extended family-like supports for desperate families through a community of devoted volunteers.” Their goals are to “keep children safe during a family crisis such as homelessness [or] hospitalization,” “support and stabilize families in crisis,” and “reunite families and reduce the number of children entering the child welfare system.” Parents in need voluntarily approach Safe Families, and they can opt to reunify with their children at any point. Program volunteers can get involved in a number of different ways, such as temporarily caring for these children to keep them safe and give struggling parents the opportunity to get back on their feet, or providing transportation and meals, emotional support, or other goods and services.
4. Become a court-appointed special advocate (CASA) volunteer. This can be a wonderful way to serve vulnerable children. CASAs are matched with foster children and gather information from their biological and foster families, teachers, social workers, medical providers, and others so they can provide input to the court on the children’s needs and recommend services. They help ensure children do not get lost in the system and serve as a consistent presence in their lives. No legal background is required, and CASAs may come from many different professions and backgrounds.
5. Mentor a child. There are many national, state, and local programs that offer opportunities to mentor. Whether through a program like Big Brothers Big Sisters, or even unofficially taking on a mentee, people can provide important support to young people in their area emotionally, academically, or through offering career guidance.
6. Volunteer with a local nonprofit. People can volunteer their skills and services. Whether it is IT support, marketing assistance, or even photographing children waiting for adoption, many local organizations serving children and families would welcome partnerships with professionals seeking to contribute their abilities.
There are many opportunities for Americans to stand up against the opioid epidemic in their communities. While each of these efforts on its own may seem small in the face of this crisis, they are very significant to the children and families touched by them.
Natalie Goodnow is a research fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty and a visiting fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.