The Opioid Epidemic: Children in Crisis

| December 24, 2018

VENANGO CO., Pa. (EYT) – While the opioid epidemic continues to be a serious issue in our region, its effect on children cannot be understated.

The effects of the drug epidemic start out from the earliest stages of life.

According to the New York Times, an estimated 2.1 million people in the U.S. are currently battling opioid addiction, many of whom are women of childbearing age.

Research released by the Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council earlier this year showed that rates of neonatal abstinence syndrome have skyrocketed over the last decade across Pennsylvania, and Northwestern Pennsylvania has some of the highest rates of neonatal abstinence syndrome in the state.

Neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) as fetal and neonatal addiction and withdrawal as a result of the mother’s dependence on drugs during pregnancy. Infants born with NAS are more likely to suffer complications such as low birth weight, prematurity, difficulty feeding, and respiratory distress. They are also more likely to be admitted to a hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit and have longer hospital stays.

Statewide, the overall rate of neonatal abstinence syndrome in newborns has increased 1096% between the fiscal year 2000-01 and fiscal year 2016-17, from 1.2 to 15.0 per 1,000 newborn stays. There were nearly 2,000 NAS-related newborn stays in Pennsylvania in the 2017 fiscal year.

Venango County saw their rate of NAS births climb to 41.1 per 1,000 births, the fourth highest rate in the state. In the surrounding areas, the rates vary widely, from 12.1 per 1,000 births in Clarion County to 36.1 per 1,000 births in Mercer County.

A trickling effect on children of drug addicts is the development of adverse behavior patterns.

“We’re going to see an impact on childhood behaviors,” said Susan Huffman of Venango County Substance Abuse. “The Children’s Development Centers are already seeing some different related behaviors and I think we’re going to see more in the future.”

The associated medical issues and later life social and developmental issues from NAS are just one early life aspect of the drug epidemic’s effects on our youth. Older children can suffer other effects.

Another unsettling aspect of the effect on children of drug addicts is their unstable home life.

According to Todd Kline, Director of Clarion County’s Children and Youth Services (CYS), the county saw a massive bump in foster placements due to methamphetamine abuse in 2015, and while the number of placements has declined since that time, he expects to most likely see it rise again.

“It seems to go cycles for us, for whatever reason,” Kline said.

“I don’t think we’re really seeing [placements due to parental drug abuse] as much right now, but that’s probably going to change again. It never really goes away.”

According to Child Trend’s most recent annual report on children in foster care, in 2015 out of 16,049 children in foster care (including kinship care with a relative) in the state of Pennsylvania, 53% were in care due to parental substance abuse, a rate nearly 20% higher rate than the overall national rate.

Although children left struggling in foster care due to parental substance abuse is a growing problem, another even more disturbing problem is children left without a parent due to an overdose death.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates the rate of overdose deaths in the state of Pennsylvania increased by 16.9% from 2016 to 2017, the seventh highest rate increase in the nation. Sadly, this increase has not only meant a number of children losing one or both parents. Some of those deaths have been the deaths of children.

According to the CDC 2018 Annual Surveillance Report of Drug-Related Risks and Outcomes, there were 142 deaths reported during the most recent reporting year from children age 0-14 in the United States.

While adults are struggling with substance abuse, accidental child overdoses can be very dangerous, and even fatal. One to two tablets of certain medications can be lethal to a toddler.

Earlier this month, according to CBS Philly, a mother and father in Upper Darby, Delaware County, Pennsylvania, were charged with murder for the death of their 10-month old daughter, who overdosed on fentanyl.

In another case, USA Today reported on the charges against a mother and her boyfriend following the death of a three-year-old girl in Greensboro, Pennsylvania from an overdose of methamphetamine and buprenorphine.

According to the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, an East Hills woman was charged with homicide in August after her 17-month-old daughter died, and fentanyl was found in her the toddler’s sippy cup.

With the widespread substance abuse affecting families, the danger of older children choosing to experiment with drugs has become another concern.

According to Kami Anderson, Executive Director of Armstrong-Indiana-Clarion Drug & Alcohol Commission, they have seen a large increase in young people vaping, and have concerns about what substances those young people are using.

“They’re often using the Juul, which looks like a thumb drive from a computer,” Anderson said.

“They can insert different flavored tobacco products, but there are also illegal inserts with other drugs. If parents have kids using e-cigarettes or the Juul, they should be monitoring what exactly they’re using and discouraging the use.”

While vaporizers can contain anything from simple flavored oils up to illegal narcotics inserts, Anderson encourages parents to be vigilant about what their children are using.

She also noted that the Armstrong-Indiana-Clarion Drug & Alcohol Commission offers a range of services not only for those who are struggling with addiction but also for those closest to them who are affected, including children.

“We try to offer support groups for family members and we are having a provider go into the schools and do therapy. If children of people using who feel they need therapy they qualify, with a parent’s permission,” Anderson said.

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