Drug Addiction is Leading Cause of Child Removal from Homes in Florida County

By Paul Gaita 05/09/17

The rate of children being removed from homes due to parental drug abuse is up 30% in Duval County.

pensive kid sitting on a bench near an empty playground.

Parental drug addiction has led to a steep increase in the number of children being removed from their homes in Duval County, Florida, and placed into adoptive or foster-care scenarios.

Lee Kaywork of Family Support Services, which contracts companies to handle the extrication of children from potentially dangerous home situations, said that drug addiction is now the leading cause of child removals, and accounts for some 70% of such cases in Duval County, up from previous statistics which credited drug abuse with 40% of such cases.

The rise in Florida is indicative of the drastic rise in the number of foster care cases that child care agencies around the country are experiencing as part of the national opioid epidemic.

While current national data does not reflect how many children are removed from homes due to drug addiction, reports from individual states reflect a crisis that is stretching the resources of child care agencies.

State and local officials from Ohio and Missouri both note that drug addiction is the root cause of the cases that come before their family services: Missouri Representative Vicky Hartzler said that parental drug use accounted for a quarter of all children in foster care, while officials in the Cincinnati area have found that a combination of substance abuse, mental health and domestic violence are present in 70% of their cases.

"Going back 10 years, you wouldn't see all three, or it would be rare," said Moira Weir, director of the state's Job and Family Services. Similar numbers have been reported in states like Georgia, California and Massachusetts, prompting urgent calls from child care agencies for foster parents.

Kaywork acknowledged that removing a child from their home and parents is a devastating experience: "There is nothing more traumatic for a child than removing their parent. Nothing." But he also noted that the child's safety is of equal and immediate importance. "When you remove a child, you want to create a sense of urgency and permanency," he said. He emphasized that while parent rehabilitation is a key component to restoring a sense of security to the child's life, there are situations in which it can be achieved, which requires his agency to find the child a safe home environment. 

But others have seen the uptick in child removal as an additional problem, rather than a solution. In an op-ed penned for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Richard Wexler, executive director for the national Coalition for Child Protection Reform, suggested that treatment for the parents might be a healthier alternative to removal as the first action taken in such cases.

He cited a 1998 study conducted by the University of Florida that followed two groups of children born with an addiction to cocaine. One set was placed in foster care, while the other remained with the birth mothers. After a period of six months, the babies were tested for standards of infant development, such as rolling over and sitting up. The group that showed a higher rate of response was the group that remained with the birth mothers. 

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.