Time to Foster Change

Opioid Crisis

Our country has been in the midst of an opioid crisis for the last several decades. Currently, we are facing a fentanyl epidemic which is now being considered as the next wave of the opioid tragedy. We continue to be enmeshed in this ongoing drug epidemic and all the disturbing side effects that accompany it. Innocent children are being swept up in this abyss and entering the foster care system in record numbers. Along with the countless number of deaths that occur on a weekly basis from opioid abuse, therein lies another equally disturbing repercussion from this ongoing struggle. Tens of thousands of infants having been exposed in utero are born addicted to heroin or other opioid substances. Presently, in the United States, it is estimated that a baby is born diagnosed with neonatal abstinence syndrome every 15 minutes. NAS is a condition caused by prenatal exposure to any variety of substances, including opioids. Another term used in the pediatric neonatal intensive care unit is neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome (NOWS). This term refers to symptoms infants experience when specifically exposed to opioids. I am very familiar with both of these terms and the aftereffects these conditions have on infants. Both of these terms are described as treatable, but as a mother to one of these children, I am here to attest that the damage done to these babies is traumatic and the treatment they require could last a lifetime. Let’s not mince words. The cold hard truth is opioid addicted newborns suffer severe trauma in utero. After birth the battle is just beginning (imagine an infant given methadone intravenously to aid with their heroin addiction). Children born with an opiate addiction need prompt medical attention at birth and continuously thereafter from various health care specialists. As they grow there is a likelihood that most of these children will endure a life afflicted with physical, mental and emotional issues. We are facing situations in which a child’s mental, cognitive, sensory and emotional abilities have been severely delayed and/or altered. Some conditions opiate babies later develop are ADHD, aggression, emotional immaturity, lack of social awareness, sensory issues, sleep deprivation, and self-inflicting harm, to name just a few. My son was this baby and is this child. I have experienced all of this first-hand so please believe me when I say that an addicted infant’s needs are vast and life-long. So far as I can tell, there is nothing treatable about it.

The opioid crisis engulfing the country only amplifies how broken the child welfare system truly is. After birth these drug exposed newborns will be immediately placed in the custody of child protective services. Like any other child welfare case, the parents will be offered a case plan and the opportunity to complete it. No other viable option for permanent placement will be utilized by the dependency court until the parents of these children are given their chance in court. The fact that some of these babies will be eventually reunited with the person(s) responsible for the difficult life they now have to endure is a cruel injustice. The grevious damage inflicted on these babies do not warrant a second chance. The permanent hardships these children now have to suffer is unforgivable. No one wishes to see a child removed from his/her parents and family. However, in certain circumstances this is exactly what needs to be done. In many abuse/neglect situations, especially drug exposed infants, the parents along with other members of the extended family are ill-equipped to help. In many of these situations, the parents continue to struggle with their own addictions. The needs of these infants cannot be postponed or overlooked until their families can support, heal and rehabilitate themselves.

I am not unsympathetic to the parent(s). I’m sure love can be found in several of these children’s cases, but for the child to have any chance at all, emphasis needs to focus on their well-being and less upon the rights of birth parents and/or biological family. I don’t say this without empathy. No one, especially those that have personally experienced this heartbreaking reality, wish to see a parent lose their child because of an addiction they can no longer control. I understand that there are countless reasons why an individual becomes an addict. I am also aware that many opiate abusers become dependent unintentionally. Blame is not what I am seeking. It is the significance of the child that I would like to see come to light.

As an adoptive parent of a drug exposed baby and previous foster mother, I implore our legislatures to please remand the current dependency statutes. The staunch protection of parental rights and the supposed mental and emotional harm caused by parent/child separation seem to be the only concerns that exist at the heart of every dependency case. We have to change the timeworn ideology that parents automatically come equipped with the love, concern, dedication and selflessness needed to raise a child. Our laws need to cease in treating children as property. A clear perspective of the ever present distress, turmoil and danger they face as victims of parental abuse/neglect needs to be addressed and accentuated with the adequate protection they require. Until the astronomical weight of parental rights begins to tilt more toward children’s rights, the well-being of these kids will continually be placed in jeopardy. Have we not yet received the message that traumatized kids usually turn into unstable adults. Our news streams are a constant reminder of this fact. It’s not rocket science. A human being doesn’t come into this world wanting to inflict harm and chaos onto another. That propensity, in my opinion, manifests itself from some kind of trauma, usually stemming from childhood. We need to awaken to the fact that the physical, mental, and emotional abuse suffered in childhood will ultimately affect society in some way. How can it not?

We only have one childhood, and within this childhood lies a certain amount of time to experience and absorb all the necessary fundamentals such as safety, nurturing and love. Without these essentials it’s very difficult to go forth into a well-adjusted adulthood.

When we recognize this truth maybe then our legislature will place more focus where it needs to be. This is why it’s ever so important to have children’s rights officially acknowledged in this country. An action of that magnitude would force state child welfare departments and county foster care agencies to re-examine the modes, methods and means of their robotic systems. Which all too often places the addicted, abused and/or neglected children back within the precarious circumstances from which they were removed. It would compel the judicial system to reconsider its all too familiar rubber-stamp orders of reunification and encourage more suitable alternatives. It’s past time for the powers that be to step in and do something constructive that will safeguard these kids. A child does not deserve to find themselves at the mercy of a sterilized system completely bare of any significant rights due to the actions of others. Most of these kids end up with no attorney, no guardian, and no advocate, which amounts to, no voice whatsoever. How incredibly callous and unfair. How does an injustice such as this continue to thrive, especially within the United States? Aren’t we better than this?