States Consider Foster Care Alternatives As They Grapple With Parental Addiction

By Paul Gaita 06/27/18

Some states are taking approaches that focus on reducing the trauma of separation from the child while encouraging parents to continue treatment.

diverse group of kids on a field trip

A new report from The Hill notes that the rise in the number of children who enter foster care has forced state governments to rethink the notion of separating families while parents undergo treatment for substance dependency.

States such as New Jersey, which has struggled with high rates of opioid overdose, and Colorado are implementing programs which allow children to remain with the parent in treatment, or combinations of care by relatives with enhanced mental health services for the parents.

In both cases, the hope is twofold: to reduce the trauma of separation from the child and encourage the parents to continue with treatment.

Statistics have shown that after a decade of decline in the number of children entering the national foster care system, caseloads in 36 states rose by 10% between 2012 and 2016. The opioid epidemic was credited with much of the increase in many states, which treated substance dependency in a home with children as a form of abuse and therefore worthy of removing the children.

However, as the numbers for both opioid dependency and foster care admission continue to rise, state agencies have begun to regard the approach as "impounding trauma upon trauma," as Jason Butkowski, a spokesperson for New Jersey's Department of Children and Families, stated.

"Children do better when they're with family," said Wendi Turner, executive director of the Ohio Family Care Association. And several states have launched a variety of programs designed to enable that arrangement. In Nebraska, the state Division of Children and Family Services initiated its Mom and Me program, which grants long-term residential treatment for mothers in recovery and allows them to remain with dependent children ages eight and under.

In New Jersey, state services do not equate exposure to substances taken by mothers as a form of child abuse, which grants the state more options to provide assistance to adults and their dependent children.

And in Washington, D.C., foster care numbers have declined due to their use of kinship care programs, in which a relative takes in a child deemed at risk instead of a state program, along with Medicaid-funded treatment programs.

In all cases, states are taking the stance that by eliminating the potential for stigma or trauma on children, parents may be more willing to seek treatment and hopefully keep their families together. New Jersey spokesperson Butkowski noted that in some cases, "folks aren't reaching out for services because addiction is such a charged term."

Colorado has embraced this notion through its Lift the Label campaign, which seeks to inform the public about opioid dependency and recovery, and "provide a message of hope from people who used to feel hopeless," according to a Department of Human Services press release. 

"We want people to know if they are ready to seek help, we've got their back," said department head Reggie Bicha.

In all cases, states hope that the sympathetic approach will generate greater interest in their various treatment programs and in turn, bring down foster care numbers.

"Put the person first," said Butkowski. "We're asking the question, 'What happened? Why are you in this place in your life?' rather than 'What did you do? How can you make it better?'"

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