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The Impact of Drug and Alcohol Addiction on the Foster Care System

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

Medically reviewed by

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

January 29, 2019

Whether someone winds up in foster care because of the death, abuse, or abandonment of a parent; foster care can be extremely hard for anyone to handle. It can be even harder if a child has foster parents who abuse drugs or alcohol. This not only leads to the possibility of passing on an addiction to another generation, but also poor parenting, and abuse like verbal, mental, physical, or sexual.

What Is An Addiction?

The definition of addiction is “a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences” (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse). These consequences can be self-inflicted, or when the harm is done to someone else. Addiction can potentially hurt everybody else in the life of the person inflicted with the disease. In the home, a person’s spouse, children, parents, significant other, or even foster children can be the recipient of different types of abuse and/or neglect.

Not everyone who drinks liquor or takes prescription opioids will become addicted. The same is true for abuse of prescription drugs and alcohol. Substance use becomes abuse when a person uses it any way other than it’s intended purpose. Substance abuse becomes an addiction when a person can’t stop using the drug on their own.

What Is The Impact Of Parental Drug And Alcohol Abuse On Children?

Whether a traditional home or foster home, addiction can affect parenting—on both sides of the family. A child who goes through life with a parent who’s addicted to drugs or alcohol might grow up angry, resentful, or with a lack of respect to elders and authority figures. From the parent’s side, a “substance use disorder may affect his or her ability to function effectively in a parental role. Ineffective or inconsistent parenting can be due to the following:

  • Physical or mental impairments caused by alcohol or other drugs
  • Reduced capacity to respond to a child’s cues and needs
  • Difficulties regulating emotions and controlling anger and impulsivity
  • Disruptions in healthy parent-child attachment
  • Spending limited funds on alcohol and drugs rather than food or other household needs
  • Spending time seeking out, manufacturing, or using alcohol or other drugs
  • Incarceration, which can result in inadequate or inappropriate supervision for children
  • Estrangement from family and other social supports”

(U.S. Department of Health and Human Services)

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Drug And Alcohol Addiction And Ability To Conduct Foster Care

As mentioned earlier, drug and alcohol dependence can have an impact on the well being of foster children as well as traditionally raised children. Another lesser known issue is a foster parent’s inability to successfully hold up to their end of the bargain and meet the state requirements of the foster care system. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, some of the issues faced by foster care agencies if one of the parents has a substance use disorder (such as addiction) are:

  • Insufficient service availability or scope of services to meet existing needs
  • Inadequate funds for services and/or dependence on client insurance coverage
  • Difficulties in engaging and retaining parents in treatment
  • Knowledge gaps among child welfare workers to meet the comprehensive needs of families with substance use issues
  • Lack of coordination between the child welfare system and other services and systems, including hospitals that may screen for drug exposure, treatment agencies, mental health services, criminal justice system, and family/dependency courts
  • Differences in perspectives and timeframes, reflecting different guiding policies, philosophies, and goals in child welfare and substance abuse treatment systems (for example, a focus on the safety and well- being of the child without sufficient focus on parents’ recovery)

Can A Foster Parent’s Addiction Affect A Child’s Development?

Yes. Serious developmental issues can arise in children growing up in an environment where drug and alcohol abuse play a role in whether or not they will get to eat. Some of these issues can include: “Poor cognitive, social, and emotional development; depression, anxiety, and other trauma and mental health symptoms; physical and health issues; substance use problems” (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services).

How Many People With Addictions Give-Up Their Children To Foster Care?

A person suffering from alcoholism or a marijuana use disorder may be lacking some of the mental, social, and emotional capabilities to take care of children—though in many cases they still do it; perhaps just not as well as the children need. There are some drugs (like opioids) that are more likely to result in having to put an infant up for adoption or into the foster care system.

From an article in the New York Times, “after declining for several years, the number of children in foster care jumped 8 percent nationally, to 428,000, between fiscal years 2012 and 2015, the most recent data available. Experts say opioid abuse accounts for a lot of that increase. Officials cited parental substance abuse as a reason for removing children from families in 32.2 percent of cases in 2015, up from 28.5 percent in 2012.” With this in mind, and the heroin epidemic in full force in The United States, it’s no wonder that the foster care system is growing.

Are Children In Foster Care More Likely To Have A Substance Use Disorder?

In an interesting study by the U.S. National Library Of Medicine, they found, “youth in certain living situations were more likely to be using illicit substances or meet criteria for SUD (substance use disorders), specifically youth in independent living and congregate care settings. These findings are not surprising, as youth in independent living settings would obviously have more freedom to participate in these activities and youth in congregate care settings are often placed there because of behavior issues and/or mental health problems – all risk factors for substance use and disorder.”

Child Protective Services Response To Substance Abuse

Agencies that are dedicated to helping children and ensuring that they aren’t being abused (such as Child Protective Services) have guidelines to follow, and will not necessarily take a child away if a foster parent uses drugs or alcohol.

The guidelines from the State of Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, are based on these ideas: “Substance use, or the addiction of the parent-caretaker or adult living in the home to alcohol or drugs, does not in and of itself constitute evidence of abuse or neglect of the child. Parents use legally or illegally obtained drugs to varying degrees and many remain able to safely care for their child. If other adults residing in the child’s home are using drugs/alcohol, the parent/caretaker’s capacity to care for the child and ensure his or her safety and well-being must be evaluated.”

What Other Problems Come From Living In A Home With Addiction

According to the State of Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, some of the factors that very often appear in drug homes are:

  • Criminality.
  • Loss of household control (individual who controls the drug trade usually controls the environment).
  • Unsecured weapons.
  • Presence of illegal and/or controlled substances.
  • High potential for violence.
  • General neglect, such as squalor, lack of food, etc. Unmet needs of the child.
  • Presence of individuals who endanger the child’s welfare.

Signs That A Person Is Addicted To Drugs Or Alcohol

It can be difficult to believe that a person you care about is using drugs, oftentimes a person suffering from an addiction is pretty good at hiding it. There are a few different signs that you can look for if you believe your spouse, foster child, or parent is addicted to drugs. They might spend a lot of time alone, slur their speech, drink or drug more than they say they will, or tell you that they aren’t going to drink or drug anymore… but then do anyways.

Addiction Might Be Hard To See

Sometimes the indications of an addiction can be more subtle than this—and if a person’s eyes are red, or if they constantly wear long sleeve shirts—as sometimes a person using heroin will hide their needle track marks with their sleeves. These aren’t always a dead give away for addiction, but they can certainly be cause for suspicion in some cases.

Some people with an addiction will experience withdrawals when they aren’t using drugs at which time they might sleep a lot or a little, have mood swings, not be able to eat, or not be able to hold down what they do eat. Detoxification, behavioral treatment, and peer support groups can be some of the safest way to live a substance free life.

How To Get Treatment For An Addiction

Addiction is a physical, mental disease and disorder, and unless properly treated, it can cause a lot of other issues in a person’s life. Some people don’t ever get the help they need for an addiction and they wind up with even worse consequences. It can leave a person broken, with no job, home, friends, or money.

If you would like to learn more about treatment for substance use disorders or addiction’s impact on foster care, contact for more information.

State of Michigan Department of Health and Human Services - Children’s Protective Services Manual

U.S. National Library of Medicine - Substance Use and Abuse among Older Youth in Foster Care

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