The Overlooked Victims of the Opioid Epidemic

Illustrated by Alexandra Laufer

The opioid epidemic is a national crisis. It adversely affects public health, as well as the social and economic wellbeing of many individuals (4). The epidemic began in the 1990s and has remained a major health issue since then. Opioids affect more than the individuals that abuse them; there are forgotten victims of the epidemic: children. When parents abuse opioids, children suffer. Often, these young individuals are sent to foster care, and their health issues worsen. The foster care system is unstable, and as the opioid epidemic has worsened, so has the strength of foster care and the children who rely on the system.

Before delving into the negative effects that opioid abuse has on children, it is important to fully understand the opioid epidemic. In the 1990s, physicians overprescribed these painkillers. Pharmaceutical companies convinced doctors that patients would not become addicted, which is why they were so frequently prescribed. However, it became clear that these drug companies had lied when such a large number of patients began to misuse opioids (4). Of those prescribed opioids for chronic pain, “roughly 21 to 29 percent… misuse them.” Opioid abuse is far from rare in the individuals who are prescribed these drugs. However, drug abuse does not stop with opioids; those who become addicted to opioids often transition to other drugs.

Opioid abuse leads the way for heroin use. It has been estimated that “about 80 percent of people who use heroin first misused prescription opioids.” Heroin is a more dangerous drug, and more addictive. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines 2010 as the second wave in the opioid epidemic, in which there was a rise in heroin overdose deaths (1). The number of deaths from opioids has continued to increase; “on average, 130 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose.” Clearly, this epidemic has an extremely adverse impact on society. Although individuals are dying, many are living, but suffering, due to opioid abuse.

Since the epidemic’s beginning, many individuals who enter the foster care system are from a family in which opioids were abused. As the number of opioid deaths rose by around 10 percent, there was a similar increase in the rate of entry into the foster care system (2). These children who enter the foster care system are considered a “neglected subpopulation” of the opioid epidemic. They are negatively impacted by the opioid epidemic, yet their health issues often go ignored.

The foster care system has taken in children with health problems for many years. It is estimated that between 30 and 80 percent of children that enter the system have at least one physical health problem (5). Many children who enter the system require healthcare, especially mental health care. However, the treatment available to children who enter the system is insufficient. There is a shortage of mental health professionals equipped to deal with trauma, a lack of funding for children to receive care, and a large number of barriers that prevent children from receiving adequate care (5). Children who enter the system after being taken out of an opioid-influenced environment need nurturing. When they enter the foster care system, they often have physical, developmental, and mental health issues. They have experienced trauma and adversity, and desperately need care (5). However, the system is unequipped to deal with the issues that these children are facing and thus, their health worsens.

Children who come from an environment of neglect and abuse are more likely to develop health issues and a drug addiction. Typically, children who enter the system due to opioid-related issues require therapy. However, “too often what happens to foster kids is that they go to underfunded, under-resourced clinics where the therapists are not well supported” (3). These children need high-quality, consistent care, yet are not receiving it. This exacerbates their health issues, and in the future, leads to a greater number of addicts.

The opioid epidemic is a vicious cycle. It originated with the deception of pharmaceutical companies and the missteps of doctors and eventually spiraled out of control. The number of addicted individuals is enormous and uncontrollable. The secondary casualty of the epidemic, children, go ignored. They enter the foster care system, yet do not obtain the care they require. The opioid epidemic has unintended consequences that frequently are ignored. The health of children of abusers, as well as the strength foster care system, also are negatively impacted by opioid abuse, which is both an unexpected and unfortunate consequence of the opioid epidemic.

Edited by: Kenny Peng
Illustrated by: Alexandra Laufer




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