By Julia Perkins
As the opioid crisis worsens in Connecticut, state agencies are coping not just with growing demand for treatment programs but also with added pressure on the child welfare system as children of addicts are put into foster care.
In less than a year, the foster care caseload increased by 12 percent in the region that includes Danbury, Waterbury and Torrington, according to the Department of Children and Families (DCF). Just 15 months ago, the number of kids in care statewide had dropped to under 4,000, a record low, but has since soared to 4,400.
Officials said the jump is owing in large part to the opioid epidemic, which has created what Gabriela Krainer, the substance abuse program coordinator for Family and Children’s Aid, calls a “generation of orphans.”
“About 10 years from now, we are going to have a new phenomena: all those kids that their parents, somehow, have lost touch with them,” Krainer said.
Mindy Solomon, foster care supervisor for Family and Children’s Aid, said such children often face problems beyond those of others in the system.
“They’re traumatized children and their trauma needs to be treated,” she said. “But in other ways, we know there’s a predisposition for them to have addiction issues, so as we’re treating the trauma, we also need to be looking at that predisposition.”
Some kids with addicted parents turn firmly against drugs, Krainer said, but others start using as a way to have something in common with the parent.
“It’s a question of attachment, to get close to that parent that abandoned you through those behaviors, and engaging in those behaviors, with alcohol use and drug use,” Krainer said, which means that both parents and their children in foster care must be educated about addiction.
“We’re hoping that [with] this whole holistic combination we’re doing ... we can try and at least stop it where it is and not let it progress,” she said.
Besides working to meet the special needs of foster children with addicted parents, DCF also tries to help keep families together so the demand for foster care is not so overwhelming.
This effort makes use of a longstanding program called Family-Based Recovery (FBR), developed in 2006 in partnership with Yale Child Study Center and John Hopkins University. Under the program, a team of clinicians visits the family several times a week to conduct drug tests while coaching clients on their parenting skills.
The program has treated about 1,400 families with children aged 3 or under. Eighty percent of children in these cases were able stay with their biological parents when the program was complete, while 6 percent went to foster care and the rest to other types of care.
The program has shown so much promise that it was recently selected for the Pay for Success Project, which uses public and private funding to promote innovative ways of solving social problems. The project funding will allow the department to expand the program to 500 more families and serve parents with children up to age 6.
This expansion, called the Family Stability Project, will be particularly beneficial to families in the Danbury region, as well as the eastern part of the state, where DCF has found a gap in services, said Elizabeth Duryea, chief of staff for the department.
Jane Ungemack, an assistant professor at UConn, is evaluating the success of the project, comparing 500 families who receive FBR services with 500 families in traditional treatment. Results are not complete, she said, but she predicts that families in the FBR program will be less likely to have children in the welfare system.
“Having a child removed from the home is a traumatic experience itself,” Ungemack said. “DCF has been working very hard to avoid that and really help parents be better parents...motivating someone to get treatment.”
DCF regional administrator Vannessa Dorantes said parents outside the FBR system often spend their time fighting to get their kids back instead focusing on treatment for their addictions.
With FBR, she said, “They learn to use their child as a motivator and stay clean for them.”
Dorantes added that monitor families closely to make sure children in addiction cases are safe.
If a child must be separated from a parent, Duryea said, DCF generally tries to reunite them within a year. But recovering from substance abuse is a lifelong process, so it may take more than a year for the addicted parent to be ready, she said.
Most families in the program come from a lower socioeconomic status, officials said. Many of the parents having a high school diploma or less, and half have other mental health problems.
Some already have lost custody of another child, said Karen Hansonassistant clinical professor in the Child Study Center at Yale, who has worked with the program since its inception.
Hanson added that research has shown that the brains of addicted people function differently from those of other people, and that they might respond differently to a stimulus such as a baby’s cry, for example.
“A lot of people judge (parents) with substance-use disorders and think they don’t care about their children...but how their brain is hard-wired is different,” Hanson said.
But at a recent event celebrating the expansion of the FBR program, Dorantes said she was struck by the transformation in the parents who have participated.
“There were moms there with their babies who were thriving, literally thriving, and they were tending to them in a way that’s remarkable to see,” she said.