Fighting the opioid and foster crisis by supporting families
© Greg Nash

National Foster Care Month comes to an end today, but it’s important that we talk about the American foster care crisis year-round. It is a crisis because no child should experience the hopelessness of not having a safe and stable family and home. Sadly, another crisis, the opioid epidemic, is exasperating this problem in many regions of the country. Sometimes parents with drug addictions leave children behind – broken, vulnerable, and sometimes homeless. If we’re going to address the rising tide of opioids in this country, we can’t forget the children left in its wake.

The latest foster care report from the U.S. Children’s Bureau shows that our nation’s overall foster population is increasing. The number of children in foster care increased 2.3 percent last year to more than 437,000 children in the system. In fact, America’s foster care population has increased every year since 2012. In the latest report, just over 92,000 children were removed from their homes due to parental drug abuse, a 7 percent increase from the previous year.

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Neglect remains the main reason children enter foster care. But according to federal data from 2015 to 2016, the increase in the number of children who came into foster care as a result of parental drug abuse was far greater than the increases in any of the 14 other categories, like housing instability. This trend is consistent with other research, including a study from the Brookings Institute, which shows that states are specifically reporting increases in foster care placements attributed to the opioid crisis.

In America, we’ve continually seen the impact of drug epidemics on foster care. During the cocaine epidemic from the 1980s and 1990s, we saw an increase in the foster care population, according to the Government Accountability Office. So, it’s no surprise that as opioid abuse increases, foster care numbers would increase too.

Thankfully, our nation is collectively raising awareness about the opioid epidemic. Likewise, Congress passed bipartisan legislation during both the Obama and Trump administrations to provide funding to combat opioid addiction, and more legislation is moving through the Congress now. We must not only address the opioid crisis, but especially the vulnerable children impacted most directly by this crisis.

So, what should we do?

As our nation looks at opioid’s impact on foster care, some may be quick to condemn biological families and deem them unfit to ever parent again. Many Americans who assess the state of Child Protective Services and foster care automatically look to adoption as the primary or even the only solution. This is the wrong approach.

Although I applaud families who are willing to adopt from foster care, it’s important to remember that family reunification is the first goal of foster care. As we approach solutions for the increased need for foster families due to the opioid crisis, we must also strengthen families and create opportunities for rehabilitation of the parents, with the hopes of reunification. We need the government, communities, nonprofits, and churches to partner together to improve the chance of reunification for impacted families and children.

Despite the national trend, Oklahoma has seen positive movement in lowering our foster numbers due to a new Oklahoma Fosters Initiative. We’ve gone from about 10,500 children in care just three years ago to about 8,100 today. However, Oklahoma still has a dire need for families willing to take in children while their parents get the addiction help they need.

Our government, at the local, state, and federal levels, should pave the way for churches, civic groups, and other nonprofits to support struggling families. This is especially true when it comes to supporting families where children have been removed because one or both parents face opioid addiction. As our nation struggles through our opioid epidemic, we need as many players in the game as possible to support addiction recovery, and safe, loving families.  

When services provided to a struggling parent cannot keep the family together, governments can support kinship placements or local placements that allow regular visitation while the parent(s) undergo rehab. The goal is to cause as little trauma as possible to the family as the government intervenes on their behalf. 

While it is wonderful that many Americans become foster parents to adopt or “save” children, we need wrap-around supports in local communities, and we need families now more than ever before who are willing to foster children for a period of time while parents overcome addiction. To stop negative societal trends that are ravaged by drug addiction, we need an “all hands on deck” approach to help vulnerable children in our own backyards.  

Lankford is the junior senator from Oklahoma.