Hoppy Kercheval, Opinion

Substance abuse fuels foster care surge

West Virginia’s drug overdose mortality rate is the highest in the nation. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that nearly 1,500 West Virginians   died from a drug overdose from May 2022 to May of this year.

In addition, thousands more West Virginians have drug problems. A survey by WalletHub found that West Virginia ranked second in the country, behind only New Mexico, for the percentage of residents who abuse drugs.

The impact of addiction is not confined to the individual. According to Psychology Today, “1 in 5 children grows up in a home where a parent abuses drugs or alcohol. Witnessing the trauma of a parent suffering from addiction at a young age has long-term effects on the child.”

In West Virginia, substance abuse contributes to a flood of children in the state’s foster care system. There are currently 6,200 children in the system. The West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy has released a study confirming the impact of addiction on families.

“The majority of children who enter foster care placements do so, at least in part, because of parental substance abuse or neglect,” the report found.

The center correlates substance abuse and child neglect with poverty. “Families that experience financial hardship are three times more likely to be reported for neglect and four times more likely to be reported for abuse.”

Clearly there is a correlation, but is there a causation? Do people abuse drugs and neglect their children because they are poor, or are they poor because they are addicted to drugs and/or alcohol and they ignore the needs of their children?

Center executive director Kelly Allen believes the state must get ahead of the problem by making more benefits available to people to lift them out of poverty, things like state income tax credits for the poor and expanded access to Temporary Assistance to Needy Families.

“We withhold many supports until families are in crisis,” Allen said on Talkline Wednesday. “A lot of our policy making has been focused on supports that kids need once they’re in foster care and that’s really important, but we’re never going to stem the flow of kids into the foster care system until we extend the same supports to biological families.”

Allen also contends that West Virginia is too quick to take children from their parents. “West Virginia permanently terminates parental rights more often than any other state,” Allen said in an email, “at a speed nearly 40% faster than the national average.”  

The center’s report says research shows that keeping families together is a critical part of substance abuse recovery. “A 2015 meta-analysis of research on parenting and substance abuse found that programs that address both effective parenting and substance use treatment are more likely to be successful, particularly when family members can be engaged in treatment.”

However, the report determined that only 5% of treatment facilities in the state “have residential beds for clients’ children, allowing the family to stay together while a parent is undergoing treatment.”

The substance abuse epidemic is a great weight on families and the entire state. Its roots are in the flood of pain pills into the state, and the subsequent lawsuits and settlements mean West Virginia is getting nearly $1 billion for treatment.

This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to tackle the state’s most intractable problem. Some of the center’s recommendations could be part of the solution to the opioid crisis as well as the over-burdened foster care system.

Keep in mind that no government program will work for someone unless they want to get clean, but at this point, every idea is worth considering.

Hoppy Kercheval is a MetroNews anchor and the longtime host of “Talkline.” Contact him at hoppy.kercheval@wvradio.com.