Children of the crisis: Addiction's smallest victims

Experts: Many children live with family friends, relative instead of parents

By Kirstin O’Connor - Reporter/Anchor , Tara Evans - Executive Producer

ORLANDO, Fla. - The opioid crisis in the United States has affected millions of parents, and the effects are rippling out to children and relatives.

The children of the opioid crisis face problems in school, homelessness and the threat of becoming addicts themselves.

The most recent data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services showed as the opioid crisis gets worse more children are being placed in foster care. Nationally, the numbers jumped eight percent between 2012 and 2015.

Substance abuse was the reason for the removal of more than 32 percent of children in 2015. Experts said that number could be underestimating the problem depending on how local officials fill out forms.

Neonatologists at several Central Florida hospitals estimated last year, more than 300 babies were born with withdrawal symptoms caused by opioid addiction. Neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) happens when a pregnant mother is taking prescribed pills, heroin or even prescribed drugs in a program.

"It's becoming a bigger problem all across the state and all across the country," said Dr. Douglas Hardy, MD clinical director of the level 3 NICU at Winnie Palmer Hospital. "These systems, you know, mom's system absorbs the opioids and then they get sent to the babies and the babies then have to go through what's very similar to a withdrawal."

Hardy said in severe cases, they have to treat babies with NAS with more drugs like morphine.

"These babies are very difficult babies to feed, so they do tend to have a failure to thrive later on, they're very irritable, they're very uncomfortable, they don't socialize well, they don't like loud music, they don't like bright lights, so it really has a huge impact on their care," said Hardy.

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Volunteers like Patricia Jordan help soothe and care for the babies when their parents cannot be at the hospital.

"We just try to hold 'em tight and cuddle them and let them try to get over it," said Jordan.

"Just being held by a volunteer is a tremendous improvement, it keeps the babies calm, and does a lot of things that ultimately benefit the baby's care and if we can keep them calm then we don't have to use drugs," Hardy said.

"The opioid crisis, it's not only newborns," said Jennifer Patterson, the program director of dependency Children's Home Society (CHS) of Florida. "A lot of our parents have, have a lot of children they may have two or three and the siblings could be older. And so it's affected them in school, I mean it affects the families because of homelessness, they tend to be a little bit more transient, because, you know, the parents are struggling to maintain employment, it's a ripple effect through the whole (family).”

Generations United estimated more than 2.5 million children now live with relatives or family friends instead of their parents.

While children are separated from their parents, case manager said they try to assist visits between the family members as often as possible.

"We try to help them cope as best they can and, you know, make sure that you know they know that mom and dad are trying really hard and that mom and dad love them a lot and they're working to be better parents," said Patterson.

"I think that it's definitely straining the child welfare system, both in foster care and both the families and friends that support these parents. Children sometimes do have to be removed from their parents and they do need a safe place to stay while the parents overcome their addiction," said case manager Rebecca Smith, with CHS.

Patterson said the addiction cycle she sees is hard to break out of and the worst case is when the cycle comes full circle.

"I do, unfortunately, see some of my children that were children once, have become parents and also are struggling with the same, the same issue," Patterson said.

There are success stories, though, when parents find employment, housing and freedom from their addiction.

"It's just a quiet moment, where you know finally the end is there and the parents are reunified and you know their kids are brought to them," Patterson said.

This year, CHS has helped reunite 56 children in Orange and Seminole counties with their parents.

"The feeling that you get, you know having worked with that family and seeing them work so hard, and being successful, is, it's magic, like there's nothing in the world to describe it," said Patterson. "Because, you know, it's the best thing for a kid, is to be with their mom and dad."

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