- Associated Press - Monday, March 27, 2017

LOWELL, Mass. (AP) - As the opioid crisis surges, a record number of parents struggling with addiction are unable to care for their children, placing more strain on an already overburdened foster care system, according to state officials.

“Ideally, you’re rebuilding while your caseload remains stable,” said Maria Mossaides, head of the Office of the Child Advocate, an independent agency that monitors the state’s child welfare systems. “But we’ve been in a situation, as are I think many states, where we’re rebuilding at a time when caseload is increasing.”

According to Department of Children and Families data, the number of children removed from parental custody and placed in group residential homes, department foster homes, or in family-based foster care settings jumped from 13,165 in fiscal 2012 to 15,892 in fiscal 2015.

Experts say the public health crisis caused by cheap and readily available opioids is not unique to the state.

But in recent years, the children of Massachusetts parents struggling with addiction have been removed from their homes and placed in the care of the state at historically high rates.

“The impact of substance-use disorder in child welfare is a national crisis,” Mossaides said. “We are seeing exactly what everyone else is seeing, which is a huge increase in the number of … allegations of abuse and neglect that are related to parental substance abuse.”

Addiction affects families of all ages and economic standings, said Mary McGeown, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

McGeown said children who witness people using drugs at an early age are more likely to abuse substances in an attempt to cope with trauma commonly experienced by children placed in foster care.

“We have evidence that when a child grows up in traumatic environment it has a long-term impact of their health, well-being and their ability to function as a productive adult,” said McGeown.

In Lowell, officials estimate that 56 people died after unintentionally overdosing on opioids in 2015, up 522 percent from 9 deaths in 2012, according to the Department of Public Health.

Fitchburg, with a population less than half of Lowell’s, had four overdose deaths in 2012. In 2015, that number jumped to 18 confirmed deaths resulting from an overdose on heroin or another opioid. Leominster had 4 in 2012 and 6 in 2015.

At the same time, child welfare agencies are struggling to keep up with rising demand for foster home placement.

“We have extraordinarily higher numbers of children in care than we had three years ago,” said Mossaides.

Part of the reason for the uptick, Mossaides said, is a shift in state law that requires hospitals to report to child care officials when newborn children test positive for opioids.

“The allegations of abuse and neglect obviously increased,” Mossaides said.

Substance use is the top driver of children into the foster care system, according to the Department of Children and Families.

Last year, the department adopted a new case management system that allows it to track why an allegation of child neglect or abuse is made.

Nearly one-third of those allegations made between March and September 2016 were because of parental substance abuse, making it the most common reporting factor, ahead of domestic violence and mental-health concerns.

“They found what they suspected,” Mossaides said. “Which is that the increase is largely attributed to substance-use disorder.”

Recruiting new foster parents is also becoming increasingly difficult, Mossaides said, owing in part to women’s increased participation in the workforce and recent “tragic cases” in which children died while being monitored by the Department of Children and Families, including 5-year-old Fitchburg boy Jeremiah Oliver, whose body was found stuffed in a suitcase on the side of a Sterling highway in 2014 after state social workers failed to complete mandatory child well-being home check-ins.

Applicants who wish to become a foster parent in Massachusetts must undergo a “sensible and rigorous vetting process,” Mossaides said, which includes criminal background checks on the foster family and everyone over the age of 14 who might come into contact with the foster child.

Interviews with state social workers are also mandatory, as are home visits during which officials ensure the living space meets statewide safety standards.

That children in foster care often require behavioral or medical treatment means foster parents’ schedules must be able to accommodate trips to health facilities, which can be more time consuming for those living in rural areas where such facilities are few and far between, McGeown said.

Foster parents who attended a recent nationwide conference learned how to care for infants born exposed to substances, and how to help teens beat back the cycle of drug abuse.

Part of the battle for foster parents, McGeown said, is showing children that “what your parents did does not necessarily have to be your futures.”


Information from: Sentinel & Enterprise (Fitchburg, Mass.), https://www.sentinelandenterprise.com

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