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The Children of the Opioid Epidemic

One of the most upsetting casualties of the opioid epidemic in this country are those children who are affected by their parents' usage of the drugs. It may not be the first thing we think of, but the skyrocketing rates of addiction in this country have also led to the skyrocketing rates of children who are ending up either with foster families or living with their relatives as a result of their parents' overdoses. In Ohio alone, the number of children in state custody quadrupled from about 70 in 2014 to nearly 280 last year.

There were 30,000 more children in foster care in 2015 than there were three years prior – and 8 percent increase – and one of the major reasons for that is the opioid epidemic. In 14 states in the U.S., the number of foster children rose over a quarter in a four-year period (2011 to 2015), according to data gathered by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Children have been forced to sleep in state buildings because there were simply not enough foster homes available to house them, according to Children's Rights, an advocacy group. And federal child welfare money has been on the decline for years, which is where state and local funding would often step in. But in poorer counties, like Ashtabula County in Ohio, even with a recent boost in funding the state contributes the lowest amount of money to children's services of any other state in the U.S.

This is largely because Ohio has one of the highest overdose rates in the country. In 2016, nearly 4,200 Ohioans died of a fatal overdose. This was a 36 percent increase from the previous year, according to the Columbus Dispatch. And in 2015, one out of every nine deaths related to heroin happened in Ohio.

For Ashtabula in particular, the problems started in the '90s, when manufacturing jobs started going away and drugs that were new on the scene, like OxyContin and Vicodin, were liberally prescribed in communities that were becoming poorer by the second and which were rife with injuries sustained during manual labor that would require such painkillers. Once Ashtabula's residents got ahold of fentanyl in the past couple of years, however, that's when the fatal overdose rate started to skyrocket.

Now, more caseworkers are quitting than ever before because their caseloads are simply overwhelming for the meager salary that most of them make, which is, on average, about $28,500 a year. No matter how quickly they may be able to close a case, there's always another one waiting – another toddler crying because he doesn't understand why he can't see his parents, or another teenager that was raising his younger siblings while his mom went out to score drugs. The children in these situations are, unsurprisingly, subject to an incredible amount of psychological stress and trauma.

While the immediate trauma of living with a parent who is on drugs, or being taken from a parent who is on drugs, is bad enough, there is also a long-term impact on these poor children. Dozens of studies have found that children who undergo traumatic events early in their lives are more likely to suffer from mental and physical issues later on, such as substance abuse, depression, heart disease, or even cancer.