Foster Youth and Drug Addiction

By Maggie Ethridge 01/06/17

There you are, a stranger in someone else’s family, with a hollowed out gut that aches and churns relentlessly...How far of a leap are drugs?

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A child sitting on a bench at a playground, looking sad.
Two words–neglect, abuse–hold a vast and terrifying array of realities.

There is no universally accepted cause of drug addiction, but if there was one, it would include relief from physical, mental and emotional pain. Foster youth are ripped from their families and positioned into state care due to neglect or abuse; those two words—neglect, abuse—hold a vast and terrifying array of emotional and physical realities. Realities that, by definition, must be addressed.

“The narrative of the foster youth has been hijacked by this idea that foster youth are just losers. Like it's inherent, expected. The thing is, something has been done to them. I wish more people understood the loneliness.” Author of the poetry book Apocryphal and a successful editor and writer in New York City, Lisa Marie Basile was a foster youth from age 14 to 19.

In San Diego, California, the foster care system has on average 5,000 young people in care on any given day. According to a 2016 study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), it is possible that 35% of older youth in foster care have a substance use disorder. “I know the immense burden of loss and personal erasure that could lead to [criminal] behaviors. I was one of the luckier ones. That particular vice [drug addiction] skipped me,” Basile said. “But that was sheer luck, personal genetics. If I were a betting person, I would have bet my younger self would have been abusing drugs. I had all the reason to.”

Jeff Weiman, director of the San Diego Angels Foster Family Network, wrote about Basile’s “personal erasure” of foster youth in The San Diego Union-Tribune. “…some foster children have challenging behaviors as all have been traumatized. You would be too if by the age of six weeks you had figured out that none of your basic needs would be met no matter what you did.”

Personal erasure. Neglect. Abuse. A rapid, terrifying complete replacement of life as you know it, pulled from your school, home, siblings, pets, friends, and placed into a home that, however friendly, is a complete unknown. There you are, a stranger in someone else’s family, with a hollowed out gut that aches and churns relentlessly, no more anchored into this life than the wings of a butterfly in a storm. You have been spun from the only reality you’ve known into an alternate: how far of a leap are drugs? To cross from pain to escape, so easily. To take an action that is your own, not dictated by heartbreaking parents, strangers, or therapists. To claim your right to revolt.

Lacey Harden was in San Diego foster care from age 14 until adulthood. Avoiding experimenting with drugs or alcohol during those years because “growing up, I saw what drugs and alcohol did to others, specifically my parents,” she ended up addicted to methamphetamine in her early twenties. The stress of numerous foster care placements, group homes and physical illness in her young adult life, without the support of a family unit, cracked her determination to abstain. She folded into addiction breathtakingly quickly, storming to its center, jobless, rudderless, and hopeless.

Parental drug abuse is driving the enormous increase in foster care youth over the last five years. Up until then, the numbers declined, but as of 2014 (the last year statistics are available) the increase was at 3.5%. In San Diego, many more babies are now in need of foster care placement, many of them born drug addicted. Not only are these babies born experiencing withdrawal, they have long-term risks for medical, developmental, emotional and behavioral concerns. They are at higher risk for addiction.

Stephen Moore is the director of San Diego’s Voices for Children, a program for abused children in foster care which connects Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA volunteers, with foster youth. When foster children reach out for help with drug addiction, “we connect the dots for our kids, hold them accountable, help them with follow up, help them with treatment goals,” he said in a phone call. All foster children in San Diego County retain medical insurance until 26, which covers inpatient and outpatient treatments for drug addiction in centers like the San Diego County McAlister Institute. If they ask for help, Moore said, treatment comes within a day or two.

If they ask for help. Addiction is a disease that requires those who attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to first and foremost admit the addiction. It is precisely this point in which many addicts get stuck in tar, and smother. Lisa Basile followed Lacey Harden’s path: she made her way through foster care without using, then aged out of the system directly into college, and into alcoholic drinking. “I drank a lot more than most college students. And that behavior—day drunk, wine for lunch—stayed with me for a while after college. It became less about partying and way more about numbing everything out so I could get through college without facing my tragedies.”

Many of Basile’s foster youth friends had been addicted; one was a teenager and still using when she got pregnant. Often foster youth would not ask for help, not wanting to be removed from one more situation deemed harmful by some outside force, not wanting to be cut off from an immediate source of relief at their fingertips. Moore at Voices for Children said that if a CASA volunteer in their program suspects a problem, “We would loop in the social worker in the county to find out what resources have already been put in place, and then access what more is needed.”

The National Institute of Mental Health study on foster youth and drug and alcohol use summarizes the study in part by stating that foster youth may not be more at risk of drug or alcohol use, but they are more at risk of drug and alcohol addiction. Youths with conduct disorder and/or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were found to have the “highest risk for substance use and disorder.”

PTSD is defined by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) as “requir[ing] that children have experienced, witnessed, or learned of a traumatic event, defined as one that is terrifying, shocking, and potentially threatening to life, safety, or physical integrity of self or others.” It is clear why this is something foster youth grapple with, and why it might be that they are more at risk for addiction, versus experimenting with substances.

The required presence of “a repetitive and persistent pattern of behavior in which the basic rights of other or major age-appropriate social norms or rules are violated,” is the defining characteristic of Conduct Disorder. To be born in a home where your “basic needs are ignored,” where your cues for attention are treated as irritants or cause for assault, where your tears are ignored or punished, where the individuality that makes up your character is annihilated inside silence or brutalization, then the response of the brain in developing CD is more easily understood.

Caring, continuous foster families can and do alter this series of events—foster care, continuous pain, drug use, drug addiction—and the assistance and love of many adults in a child’s life have the opportunity to change their future. Teachers, therapists, priests, coaches, tutors, CASA volunteers, and neighbors all have an opportunity to connect with a young person removed from their home, and welcome them into their hearts.

Lacey Harden is now a sober, working mother. Her life is permanently lit with the memory of a counselor who worked in a San Diego group home where Harden was living. Her name was Amelia, and her continuous care toward Harden, in the face of Harden’s defiance, anger, suicidal thoughts and attempts, slowly worked its gentle wave over the hardened shores of her defenses. Harden relented, the wave broke to shore, and when the wave receded with Amelia’s death in its wake, Lacey Harden was left with the lifelong knowledge that she had been unconditionally cared for. “She never gave up on me,” Harden said.

Would that every child be so lucky after trauma.

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Maggie May Ethridge is the author of Atmospheric Disturbances: Scenes From a Marriage (Shebooks, 2014) and the recently completed novel, Agitate My Heart. She is a freelance writer published in Rolling Stone, VOX, Washington Post, The Guardian and many others. Find her at her blog Flux Capacitor or on LinkedIn or Twitter.

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