The Children of the Opioid Crisis

Photo by Rawle C. Jackman (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

If you heard our show this week, you know about the scale of the opioid crisis.

Between ease of access to powerful drugs, widespread abuse, and a rise in the number of overdose deaths, the opioid crisis is fundamentally remaking American society. As Sam Quinones, author of Dreamland, put it on the show, “One addict creates a whole field of people who are affected by this in one way or another.”



In some communities, like that of Dr. Sue Cantrell, opioid addiction is tearing communities apart. And caught up in the wake of addiction and death are thousands of children.

The overdose deaths of parents has been one contributor to a nationwide increase in the number of children in foster care for the first time since 1999. In states like Georgia, Vermont, and Indiana, child protective services have seen rises of more than 40 percent.

Some states are struggling to keep up with thousands of new children in need of foster homes — and though the cause of the surge is hard to pinpoint, several states have pointed to opioid addiction. In Vermont, a statewide survey showed opioid use as a cause in 80 percent of cases in which a child under 3 was brought into custody.

In Ohio, case workers report that in many cases where children need foster care, their entire extended family network is already addicted to opiates.

The scale of the crisis defies attempts to label it as a problem of the white working class. In a report from the Pew Charitable Trusts, Massachusetts’ state child advocate Maria Moissades said it had affected “every socioeconomic situation and every city.”

But perhaps the most tragic aspect of the crisis is its effect on the newborn children of opioid addicts. Many of these children will enter the world experiencing severe withdrawal from a drug they never willingly took.


Listen to Dr. Sue Cantrell describe the effects of opioid withdrawal in infants.


According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, one baby was born suffering from opiate withdrawal for every 25 minutes in 2012 — and the crisis has only worsened since then.

Many of the doctors on this week’s show are engaged in the kind of incremental research that will eventually produce a turn away from opioids as the primary means of pain management in the United States. Already, the federal government has released new guidelines for prescribing opioids aimed at preventing long-term dependency, and doctors like VCU’s Gerry Moeller are trying to change the medical culture that encouraged their widespread use.

But for millions of Americans suffering from addiction, and for the millions of children caught up in its wake, it may already be too late.


Want to hear the researchers trying to end the opioid crisis?
Listen to our one-hour special on opioids in America, below.