The opioid crisis that has enveloped West Virginia and many other parts of the country is sweeping with it not just addicted adults, but also the children of addicts and extended family members who end up caring for those children.
The drug addiction and overdose problem has worsened with the influx of black market synthetic opioids such as fentanyl and carfentanil. These drugs, which are many times more powerful than heroin or morphine, have contributed to an increase in overdoses and deaths. During one afternoon in Huntington earlier this year every ambulance was needed for the more than two dozen people who had overdosed.
A recent story in the Wall Street Journal by Jeanne Whalen profiled the growing challenge of adequately caring for these children whose parents are so consumed by drugs. “They watch their mothers and fathers overdose and die on the bathroom floor. They live without electricity, food or heat when their parents can’t pay the bills. They stop going to school, and learn to steal and forage to meet their basic needs.”
The children end up with grandparents or in foster care. The Journal quotes figures from the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources showing the number of children in foster care has grown by 24 percent in our state since 2012. “In Ohio, opioids are the main cause of a 19 percent increase in the number of kids removed from parental custody and placed with relatives or foster homes since 2010,” the paper reports.
The statistics are shocking, but they’re just numbers. Last September, the nation was horrified when the East Liverpool, Ohio police department released pictures of two adults passed out in their vehicle from drug overdoses with a four-year-old child awake in the back seat.
“We feel it necessary to show the other side of this horrible drug crisis,” said the police department in a Facebook post. “We feel we need to be a voice for the children caught up in this horrible mess.”
The Journal story also tells how, in many cases when addicted adults can no longer care for their children, the responsibilities fall to the grandparents, like Paula and Jim Meisberger of Lebanon, Indiana, who adopted three of their grandchildren when the parents became addicts.
“For my husband’s 35th anniversary at the company everyone asked him if he was going to retire. He said, ‘No, I have a newborn,’” Ms. Meisberger told the paper.
Often when we talk about the drug problem in West Virginia, I hear from people who believe addicts should be locked up, or they should just be allowed to ruin their lives if they choose. The problem, however, is more complicated. Just like the ripples that form when you throw a rock in the water, the impact of addiction spreads throughout the community.
As Jeanne Whalen reported, increasingly those affected are children who are forced to start life without a safe and secure home.