The Opioid Debate

A Study of Opioids and Out-of-Home Care in Wisconsin

Communities nationwide are seeing the number of children in foster care grow, in some cases exponentially, as the opioid crisis worsens. The number of kids in care reached about 440,000 in 2016, up 10% from 2012. Climbing death counts from overdoses, the rise in synthetic drugs, and worsening addictions are putting pressure on families. Strong families are a cornerstone of society. Research from the American Enterprise Institute and Institute for Family Studies suggests “states that have strong and stable families are more likely to show high levels of growth, economic mobility, and median family income, and low levels of child poverty” (Wilcox, Price, & Lerman, 2015).

Unfortunately, vulnerable children and families in Wisconsin need more support. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos created a task force to improve the child welfare system as well as prevention measures in an effort to keep families together. In November 2017, the task force released a package of bills titled “Foster Forward” focusing on: 1) preventing children from entering care, 2) improving the child welfare system, 3) supporting foster care providers, and 4) support for foster care youth (Interim Report, 2017). Such swift bipartisan action is commendable and shows Wisconsin is moving in the right direction on this issue. Our report, the first of its kind for Wisconsin, is a rigorous analysis of the relationship between opioid use and growth in the number of children in foster care. We also explain the strengths of the “Foster Forward” bills and offer ways to bolster efforts to improve the child welfare system.

The Role of Family Structure in Opioid Use & Foster Care in Wisconsin

Wisconsin has a crisis in both rising opioid usage and increasing strains on its foster care system. Our previous research examines how closely those two issues are connected (Goodnow & Flanders, 2018). This paper aims to clarify this crisis further, exploring the role family structure plays in communities’
health and children’s wellbeing.

With the opioid epidemic worsening, Wisconsin saw an increase of over 100% in emergency room visits for opioid overdoses from July 2016 through September 2017, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Midwestern region overall saw ER visits for opioid overdoses increase 70% in that time. Despite the fact that opioid prescriptions have gone down 20% since 2015 in Wisconsin, opioid abuse continues to rise (Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services, 2018).

Concurrently the number of children in foster care both nationwide and in Wisconsin has been rapidly increasing over the last six years, in part due to the opioid crisis. The number of Wisconsin children removed from their homes because of caretaker drug abuse rose 119% from just 2011 to 2016.

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