“It’s unknowable how big a factor that is, but it’s very clear that the epidemic is sweeping our country in much bigger ways than people realize and the impact is much bigger than people realize,” said Adam Pertman, president of the National Center on Adoption and Permanency and author of Adoption Nation.
Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, according to a fact sheet released by the American Society of Addiction Medicine. From 1999-2010, prescription pain reliever overdose deaths increased more than 400 percent among women and 237 percent among men. The same fact sheet reported that the substance use disorder treatment admission rate was six times higher in 2009 than in 1999.
“There’s very little that happens in a larger society context that doesn’t have some impact,” said Kevin Kelley, section chief of Child Welfare Services for the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. “We have an opiate epidemic all across America, but also in North Carolina that has an impact on child welfare.”
In North Carolina alone the annual number of children in the custody of social services rose from a low of 13,943 in 2011 to 15,523 in 2015, a greater than 11 percent increase. Not all of these children are eligible for adoption. Some will eventually return to their families once family issues have been addressed and it is safe for them to do so. Others will spend years in the foster care system before finding a permanent placement or aging out at 18 years old.
“Our concern is what happens to these kids when we don’t have a family available to them. Too often they go into less than ideal placement settings,” said Brian Maness, president and CEO of Children’s Home Society of North Carolina (CHS).
CHS has just entered the public phase of its $25 million The Promise of Family Campaign after a two-year silent phase. Its goal is to offer more services to more children and to provide permanent homes.
“All children without exception have the right to a permanent, safe, and loving family,” said Brook Wingate, vice president of philanthropy at CHS.
In operation since 1902, CHS works with state and county social services departments to help children find temporary foster families and permanent adoptive families. Maness said they received about 2,700 referrals last year but were able to place only about 12 percent.
“The need right now is staggering,” Maness said. “We would love to be able to close the gap completely from 12 percent to 100 percent.”
The number of adoptions has remained mostly stable over the last decade, according to data from the U.S. Children’s Bureau of the Administration on Children, Youth and Families. About 21 percent of children leaving foster care do so because they’ve been adopted.
“Fundamental to our work here at CHS is the core belief in family. We believe that family is the most important determinate of success for children as they’re growing and as they enter adulthood,” Maness said. “It’s unacceptable for kids to spend the majority of their childhood in foster care. As a state and as a country we shouldn’t accept that, and I hope that we can really come together to support what these kids need.”
In July, the Senate approved and President Barack Obama signed a Bill that authorized $181 million a year for new programs aimed at tackling the opioid addiction crisis. Pertman said the foster care and adoption problem has yet to get the same attention.
“For the most part there are no increases in social services, there are not increases for more social workers or for child placement or helping families succeed,” Pertman said. “As these numbers go up there's reason to be very concerned.”