In spite of the effects it has on society, we tend to think of addiction as the individual’s disease. After all, it’s the individual who chooses to abuse mind-altering substances, who exercises less and less restraint over his or her substance abuse, and who eventually suffers from profound physical and physiological deterioration due to having developed an addiction. When it comes down to it, the disease’s effects on the individual is more tangible and observable than the effects of addiction on, say, economics or the healthcare system, at least for most of us.
However, some of the most dire and disturbing consequences of addiction are most apparent when we broaden our purview beyond the individual. In fact, this is why addiction is often referred to as “the family disease.”1 While all members of a family are affected to some degree, the repercussions of addiction are often the most severe for children. Not only does growing up with an addicted parent put a child at risk for socioemotional trauma, the situation also leaves open the possibility for the child or children to actually be removed from the home by the state.
But does this actually happen today? Are children being uprooted from their homes due to their parents’ addictions? What are the most likely consequences of this unfortunate situation for the children and the family as a whole?
The Family Disease
There are few diseases with as many severe and far-reaching effects as addiction. Besides the effects that substance abuse has on the body and mind, the introduction of addiction to the family can have quite profound implications. Specifically, there’s immense stress that’s put on the entire family, resulting in strain on relationships between family members. With many addicts being less-than-honest about their alcohol and drug problems, distrust commonly develops, pushing the family dynamic to its breaking point. A decline in quality and frequency of communication continue to exacerbate the effects of addiction in the family, which can cause family members to experience declining performance at work and, therefore, puts financial stability at risk.
Of course, these effects are typically associated with a family whose child or children suffer from addiction. While many of these effects also apply to situations in which one or both parents suffer from addiction, there are some notable differences, particularly in severity.
When it’s a parent who develops a substance abuse problem, the decline in work performance and income tend to occur earlier in the timeline of effects and can be a strong catalyst for worsening addiction.2 Meanwhile, a parent’s substance abuse makes for a less capable caretaker, which can lead to a child’s neglect or, worse yet, abuse. According to recent estimates, there are over 8 million children currently living with at least one addicted parent. Moreover, substance abuse has been identified as a possible cause in up to 80 percent of households in which the children are victims of abuse.3 Even in instances where abuse isn’t present, there are many other ways a child can be affected by a parent’s addiction, including separation or divorce, injury, abandonment, death from overdose and incarceration. Obviously, the specific circumstances can vary, but having to witness a parent’s addiction and having that addiction lead to removal from the home can have lasting implications as a child develops through adolescence and into adulthood.
A Growing Problem?
Unfortunately, there’s been very little data available regarding how many children are removed from their homes due to parental addiction each year. However, the Public Children Services Association of Ohio recently collected data from 78 of the 88 counties in Ohio for 2015, hand-counting the number of children who were removed from their homes as a direct result of their parents’ addictions. According to reports, over 10,000 minors were removed from their homes and either placed into foster care or the care of a relative, which is an 11-percent increase since 2000.4
Of those children, nearly 5,200 were placed into supportive care, an added layer of support offered when there’s an apparent need for medical or psychological care (i.e., counseling, nutrition, case management).5 The report also indicated that the parents of nearly 3,000 of these children were addicted to opioids.
Like Ohio, there have been a number of other states to have been hit especially hard by the opioid epidemic with rising numbers of children being removed from their homes due to this issue. In addition to the distress that comes with being taken from one’s home, the children of addicted parents are more likely to suffer from abandonment issues,6 post-traumatic stress,7 and social dysfunction8 among numerous other effects.9
If there’s a silver lining to this growing problem, it’s that awareness of the issue is growing, which means that we can begin taking steps to help the issue if and when possible. Of course, the only way to eliminate this completely would be to eliminate parental addiction altogether, but there are ways we can offer protection to children in the hope that addiction will cost fewer children their homes. For instance, the California court system has begun to emphasize intervention and rehabilitation in situations where addicted individuals have children or other dependents.10 While we work to eradicate addiction altogether, another near-term option is to encourage family recovery by making sure parents with substance abuse problems are aware of the support and recovery resources that are available. Perhaps by encouraging these resources, fewer families will have to face the escalating effects of addiction.
Written by Dane O’Leary