Politics & Policy

America’s Flood of Opioid Orphans

A medic escorts a 39-year-old woman to an ambulance after she was revived from an opioid overdose in Salem, Mass., August 2017. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
National Foster Care Month is our chance to find solutions.

Mary was born in the bathroom of a Greyhound station, skin-and-bones. Nurses fought to keep her alive as she withdrew from meth and heroin, seized and struggled to feed. Despite intensive care, Mary had “failure to thrive.”

The Arizona Department of Child Safety did the only thing it could for the abandoned infant: called a foster family.

Fed every few hours and held round-the-clock, Mary started gaining by the day the weight that healthy infants gain in a week. She was fighting back. In time, Mary grew into an energetic bundle and was adopted by her foster family.

I know Mary’s story intimately — because I am the mother who adopted her.

Thirty years ago today, President Ronald Reagan declared May National Foster Care Month. “The family is the indispensable foundation of society,” he said. “However, some parents are unable to provide a minimally acceptable level of care for their children. National Foster Care Month presents an appropriate opportunity . . . to ensure that abandoned or abused children have the opportunity to live in healthy, loving homes.”

President Reagan couldn’t have known how prescient his words would be. No one anticipated the waves of opioid orphans flooding the nation’s foster-care systems.

Every 15 minutes a baby is born substance-exposed. Nearly 50,000 will enter care this year, more than ever before. Federal and state efforts to combat the drug epidemic have largely focused on prevention, but what happens when prevention fails?

We now have a generation of children like Mary. Prenatal meth exposure is toxic to the developing fetus, and kids carry those scars for a lifetime. Brain damage, physical impairments, and behavioral abnormalities are frequent.

The future can be especially grim for children who also end up in foster care. The purpose of foster care is to provide temporary safety for children, but for thousands it has become a life sentence.

I fostered “Emma” as a newborn. She is still a ward of the state as she nears her sixth birthday. Statistically, Emma is more likely to end up in prison than to be adopted.

Or consider a teenager I know. “John” entered state care in diapers. He was never returned home or adopted. He’s lived 16 years in the system — in 48 different homes.

One out of two children linger in care for a year or longer and move multiple times. Half don’t finish high school; only 3 percent attend college. For girls in care, teen-pregnancy rates run five times higher than the norm. Estimates show up to 70 percent of prison inmates spent time in care.

These are the lasting consequences for our society.

How do we prevent tragedies like John’s? How do we have more happy endings like Mary’s?

The core problem is that children lack some of the basic constitutional rights that we cherish as Americans. Their futures depend on the luck of the draw — Which state were they born in? Which hospital? Who is the case manager? – rather than the rule of law.

In America, the criminally accused have a constitutional right to counsel and to the speedy disposition of their cases; these children don’t. And the legal protections afforded these children are decidedly weaker than those given to their abusers.

As the judge in one of my severance hearings said, “I’d like to remind everyone in the courtroom that mom’s rights are constitutional, and baby’s rights are only statutory.”

To handle this, one place to start is by answering President Reagan’s call to do our part to ensure that abandoned and abused children live in healthy, loving homes.

Arizona recently became the first state in the country to do just that for the youngest victims. A bill overhauling the state’s foster-care laws passed the state house and senate nearly unanimously, and was signed into law by Governor Doug Ducey.

SB 1473 is based on three principles: Foster care should be temporary; children should be safely reunified with parents or relatives as soon as possible; and children need stability.

First, Arizona adopted the goal of placing children under three in their permanent home within one year.

Second, Arizona added nonmedical in utero drug exposure to the abuse statutes. When a parent has a history of abusing drugs while pregnant and cannot or will not get clean, the state will move more expeditiously toward the termination of parental rights.

“Baby B was baby number 5, meth exposed,” a mom recently wrote to me. “Baby 4 died at birth due to birth defects from exposure. Parental rights to babies 3, 2, and 1 had all been severed, but it still took until Baby B’s third birthday for him to exit foster care.” Under the new law, Baby B would have a family by his first birthday.

Third, Arizona is intensifying its relative search. Too often, kin are found too late — requiring children to be moved years after they’ve been living with foster families, who are often the only family they’ve ever known. This devastates the children, the relatives, and the foster families.

Arizona’s new legislation will help stop preventable tragedies like Emma’s and John’s and can be used as a model to guide lawmakers nationwide.

Hand-in-hand with finding relations as soon as possible, the law now considers foster families who have cared for a child for nine months or more on par with kin when determining where the child should live. This provision recognizes that bonds matter — not just bloodlines — and decisions should serve the best interest of the individual child.

This new law threads the needle. It respects the fundamental liberty interests of parents in the care, custody, and control of their children. And the law gives them a reasonable chance to get clean — but not years without end. Parents retain all due-process rights, including a court-appointed attorney, notice, mediation, a trial, and the right to appeal.

But the legislation recognizes that children also have liberty interests. The law recognizes that in utero drug exposure is abusive. And the law should help these infants have a family within a year, stopping endless delays, moves, and repeat trauma.

My Mary is the lucky one. She’s not without struggles; but she’s loved, safe, and forever.

Arizona’s new legislation will help stop preventable tragedies like Emma’s and John’s and can be used as a model to guide lawmakers nationwide.

Darcy Olsen — Darcy Olsen is the founder and CEO of Generation Justice, which works to extend constitutional rights and protections to foster children.

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