New study confirms link between opioid usage and increase in kids in foster care

On Tuesday, the Assembly overwhelmingly passed Foster Forward, a package of 13 bipartisan bills that aims both to improve foster care and strengthen families to help prevent children from entering foster care in the first place. Foster Forward was put together by the Task Force on Foster Care.

A new report called “Flooding the System” from the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty examines two of the biggest issues facing the state today: the opioid crisis and the increase of kids in foster care. This study shows just how closely these two problems are intertwined and confirms the need for legislative action like Foster Forward.

Wisconsin, like many states, is experiencing a costly public health crisis because of opioid abuse. Overdose deaths involving opioids in Wisconsin were seven times higher in 2016 than in 2000. Overdose deaths involving just heroin increased a staggering 1180 percent between 2006 and 2016, while deaths involving synthetic opioids grew over 400 percent. Neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), when babies are exposed to drugs or alcohol in the womb and are born addicted, has quadrupled since 2006.

Wisconsin has seen a parallel increase in the number of kids in foster care. Between 2012 and 2016, the number of kids in care grew by nearly 20 percent, straining the child welfare system.

Using publicly available data from Wisconsin’s Department of Children and Families, the Department of Health Services, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, our analysis found opioid prescription rates and opioid-related hospitalizations are both strongly related to the number of kids in foster care. Similarly, the rate of children entering care is strongly related to the number of opioid-related hospitalizations. As opioid-related hospitalizations increase, so do the number of kids entering foster care. Furthermore, the NAS rate is strongly related to the number of kids age 0-1 in foster care. So, as NAS rates go up, so does the number of infants in foster care.

This has a high social and fiscal cost, as counties across Wisconsin struggle to keep up with the rising number of kids in care. More children are being separated from their families due to opioid abuse, and studies have shown that children in foster care often have worse outcomes than their peers, including in areas such as education, future employment, and teen pregnancy. Prevention efforts aimed at supporting struggling families and keeping them together, as well as improvements to the foster care system for children who end up in care are key.

Bipartisan task forces have already undertaken efforts to tackle opioids and reform foster care. The HOPE Agenda, led by Rep. John Nygren, and the new foster care package, Foster Forward, are critical steps in the right direction. But more can be done and focus must be maintained.

Wisconsin should find ways to make it easier for proven foster parents in other states to become licensed when they move to the Badger State. We also ought to explore ways to allow youth to stay in care until 21 if working or in school. Studies have found that those in care who age out at 18 have tended to have worse outcomes than those who age out later. With regard to prevention, grants should be established for nonprofits, counties, and tribes for innovative supports for women that abuse substances who are pregnant or have just given birth. The data show infants are the population most likely to enter foster care due to parental drug abuse.

This is a critical matter for our state. The wreckage in human lives and lost potential that is occurring every day as a result of the opioid crisis is a slow-motion tragedy. In every corner of the state, across racial and socio-economic lines, our citizens are suffering. And while the growing burdens on the foster care system are just one element of this crisis, it is one that we cannot afford to ignore.

Children in foster care deserve the same care and opportunities to succeed as every child in Wisconsin. The ball is now with the Senate to advance Foster Forward.  

Natalie Goodnow is a research fellow with the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.