Opioid orphans: A crisis affecting the Kentucky's foster care system

It is one of the unintended, but real consequences of drug use in recent times. The opioid crisis is stretching foster care systems as more children are removed from the homes of their drug-addicted parents.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WHAS11) – Having children is a parent’s greatest joy.  It was for Neil and Lucy Payne - the proud parents of six kids.  Three of them are biological, three are adopted.

“We are busy!" Payne said.

The Payne's started the adoption process three years ago.  Skylar, Kiera and Zalen became permanent Payne family members earlier this year. 

Neil isn’t just a husband and dad.  He’s also a foster parent recruiter for the Boys & Girls Haven.  He and his wife fostered 14 children since 2013.

“I wish I could take them all in. I wish I had a place that I could – any kid that needed a home - had a place to go," he told WHAS11.

Five years ago, 6,000 children were in the state’s care.  Today, there are more than 8,600.  The increase due in large part by parents who have lost custody because of their addiction to opioids.  The phrase 'opioid orphans' becoming an all too familiar and common reality.

“When someone is struggling with addiction, that can override someone’s ability to care for that child," said Josh Swetnam.

He is the foster care program manager at Louisville’s Boys and Girls Haven – a non-profit that provides a ‘safe haven’ for children in state care.

“The crisis is big and we need to have as many people involved to help fight the good fight," Swetnam said.

Since its start in 1948 through 2015, the Boys and Girls Haven found homes for more than 5,000 abandoned, abused and neglected children.  Last year alone, they served the needs of 1,034 kids.  “This is such important work because these children are our future," Swetnam said. 

Swetnam has two adopted children - an 8-year-old boy and a two-year-old girl.  He says his daughter came from a family with a history of abuse.  He knows there are other children with similar experiences that have not been given the chance to become part of a forever family.

“Even if someone has a heart to just support a young person who is in foster care, as a mentor, as a teacher, as a tutor and certainly as a foster parent, we would love to have as many people involved," he said. 

A parent’s drug addiction can happen well before their children become toddlers or teens.  Doctors at Norton Healthcare’s Pre-Natal Addiction Program are treating more infants who experience drug withdraws after birth – a consequence of the mother’s drug use during pregnancy.

“We are going to have to reach critical mass to get the kind of help and attention and support that we need to really address this crisis," said Angie Adams, a licensed clinical social worker and clinical therapist.

It’s called 'Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome' and doctors estimate it affects 1 in every 200 births nationally.  In Kentucky, doctors say it’s even more prevalent, closer to 1 in every 100 births.

Kentucky law does not require doctors to notify law enforcement if newborns are experiencing those withdraws.  Norton Healthcare offers recovery programs for expectant mothers, currently working with 160 soon-to-be moms.

“We are trying to maintain contact with our patients even after birth, primarily to be sure they are well, the babies are well.  We are encouraging them to continue their efforts at recovery beyond delivery," said. Dr. Jonathan Weeks.

Back at the Boys and Girls Haven, it is putting out the call for you to 'Be a Hero, Save a Child, Become a Foster Parent.'  So far, 9 new families have come forward this year to open their homes surpassing the agency’s goal of six.   Swetnam says there is no such thing as having too many eager parents.

“We want families who will bring these children in and treat them as if they were their own," he told WHAS11.

It’s estimated the state could have more than 10-thousand children living in foster care within the next five years, in large part because of opioid use.  “The number one thing I get is well, I‘m going to get too attached.  Then you’re doing it correctly.  You should get too attached to the kids," Payne said. 

“If you can give a child a chance and you can provide that child with a vision of what family can be and what love can be, that you can change a child’s life," Swetnam said.

If you would like to know more about The Boys & Girls Haven, click here.  Or, you can call (502) 458-1171. 

The Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services can be reached at (502) 564-7042.

Maryhurst is another Louisville agency that can answer questions about adoption and foster care. (502) 245-1576

© 2017 WHAS-TV


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