- Associated Press - Saturday, May 20, 2017

PUEBLO, Colo. (AP) - Just five years ago, U.S. Social Services agencies were observing a slow but steady decline in the number of children in foster care, having seen nearly a 6.5 percent drop from 2009 to 2012. But in 2013, those figures suddenly began to rise: 3,800 more children entered the foster-care system in that year alone and by 2015, the most recent year with available data, the number of children in foster care had risen by more than 30,000 kids - a 7.7 percent increase over the four-year span.

With the unexpected shift, social services representatives were left wondering what happened over that time to reverse all the progress made in the previous decade. As has been the case with a multitude of social issues plaguing the U.S. in recent years, many experts attribute the influx to the nation’s growing opioid epidemic.

According to Pueblo Social Services Director Tim Hart, parental drug abuse accounted for about a 45 percent increase in out-of-home placements in Pueblo between 2011 and 2016.

“All of our other numbers are going down in terms of out-of-home placement,” Hart said, “But the ones caused by substance abuse have gone up and up and up.”

Data from a 2016 report by the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System indicates 32 percent of all cases that required children to be removed from their parents’ home were because of parental drug abuse - the second leading cause for removal after child neglect. It found that in 2015 alone, 85,937 kids in the U.S. entered the foster care system as a result of their parents using drugs.

Lee Hodge, who oversees Pueblo DSS’ intake and adolescent units, said it’s important to note that Pueblo DSS does not keep track of what drugs parents are using when removing children, and that drug use in and of itself is not grounds for removal.

“When we place children out of the home, it’s because there’s something present that presents what we call a safety issue, and safety for us means immediacy,” Hodge said.

“So if there’s something that, if I walk out of the house right now and I feel like something could immediately happen to that child, there’s a need for me to put that child into foster care. We’ve seen a fairly significant rise of that being because of drug use and inability to parent.”

The inability to parent is the primary reason DSS removes children from homes, and Hodge said drug abuse can seriously impact parents’ ability to look after their children.

“Just because somebody at one point uses drugs doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to remove a child from the home. However, we will if there is an impairment of their ability to parent and keep that child safe,” he said.

“If I go out and I see that a parent is impaired and is not able to coherently talk to us, they are not able to respond to the needs of a child. We’ve seen where children are wandering around and the parents, frankly, are inside sleeping or are inside high on drugs when they have a 3 or a 5-year old wandering the neighborhood.”

Data from the AFCARS report shows that from 2009 to 2014, parental drug abuse as a reason for removal rose from 22.1 percent in 2009, to 29.7 percent in 2014 - the largest increase of any factor causing removal.

Hodge said that in the past, the majority of children who were removed from homes came as a result of physical abuse, but now drug abuse plays the much larger role.

“Fifteen years ago you would’ve seen probably about 60 percent physical abuse and about 20 percent drug abuse,” he said, “Well now that’s flipped.”

Speaking to how drug abuse can lead to physical abuse, as well, Hart said other major factors that might result in a child’s removal are unsafe home conditions and the presence of violence - factors that, like the inability to parent, are exacerbated by drug use.

“Folks who are actively using, their boundaries of who they are allowing access to their kids and what types of individuals are around, I think that’s been a significant issue,” Hart said, “Whether it presents a physical abuse situation or sexual abuse, that barrier of just protecting their children from danger is absent because of that use.”

While the impact of the epidemic is taking a measurable toll on the foster care system, data obtained from the Center for Family Representation in New York indicates that the foster care system might also be inadvertently contributing to the epidemic.

It found that former foster-care youth were two times more likely to be dependent on alcohol and seven times more likely to be substance dependent than children growing up in traditional homes.

Hart said that not only are children more likely than ever to be admitted into foster care because of their parents using drugs, they are also more likely to be admitted into foster care for using opioids themselves.

Data from the 2015 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey - an annual undertaking by the Colorado Department of Health and Human Services - found 6.3 percent of teenagers in Pueblo reported having used heroin at least one time in their life. More than 4 percent of them were 15 years old or younger - a markedly higher number than the state average of 1.7 percent.

“We have the direct effects by parental use and then we have an increase of placements because the kids are using,” Hart said.

“So it used to be you would place a kid in an out-of-home placement because they were drinking or smoking pot or something like that and they were not going to school and were conflicting with the community, but now, we’re getting kids who are IV drug users.”

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Information from: The Pueblo Chieftain, http://www.chieftain.com

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