Worth Another Look: Children of the Opioid Epidemic

In January of 2017, the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) published a list of the top 10 issues that will be before state legislatures across the nation this year. While we’re just over a quarter of the way through the two-year 2017-2018 legislative session, it’s worth a look to see what our own elected officials are doing to address each of the issues. The next topic up for consideration: the children of the opioid epidemic.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 300,000 Americans have lost their lives to an opioid abuse since 2000. This number rises daily, as the nation is challenged from coast to coast to not just slow down opioid abuse in its communities, but to completely end it.

During the Obama Administration, the President signed the “21st Century Cures Act,” which provides over $1 billion in new funding to fight the opioid crisis. However, this isn’t a problem that will be solved with money alone. Legislators need to enact sound and thoughtful policies in order to spend those funds prudently.

Some of those policies need to be aimed at a particular segment of our population that is affected by the opioid crisis, but often goes overlooked: our children. A recent study found that the number of children hospitalized as a result of opioid exposure more than doubled between 1997 and 2012. Children can be exposed to opioids in a number of ways, including in the womb and accidental ingestion.

In addition to the health hazards children can face from being exposed to opioids, there are some indirect effects to children as a result of the opioid crisis. For example, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, there has been an increase in the amount of children in foster care of nearly eight percent. This comes after six years of decline. Furthermore, in 2014, 40 percent of children placed in the care of relatives were there because of parental drug or alcohol abuse.

So far in the 2017-2018 legislative session, lawmakers have worked to address this issue head-on. Rep. Kathy Watson (R-Bucks), Chair of the House Children and Youth Committee, introduced H.B. 235, which would establish a task force on the opioid epidemic’s impact on children. The task force’s mission will be to “improve the safety, well-being and permanency of substance-exposed infants and other young children adversely affected by their parents’ substance abuse disorders.” The bill unanimously passed in the House and is awaiting consideration by the Senate.

To address the ever-growing number of children placed into the care of relatives due to a parental drug problem, Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski (D-Luzerne) has introduced H.R. 390, which would direct the Joint State Government Commission to study grand families, with a focus on how the opioid crisis is impacting this growing trend. In addition, Rep. Pashinski also introduced H.B. 1539, which would provide grandparents the ability to obtain temporary guardianship of their grandchildren, hopefully reducing the number of children placed in foster care.

As the legislature and Governor continue looking for ways to combat the opioid epidemic, children will likely play a more prevalent role than they have in the past. Each generation hopes for a brighter future for the next. We have a responsibility to protect children from the devastating impact opioid abuse and addiction has on our society by creating solutions to curtail tragic consequences of this epidemic.

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