Brunswick, New Hanover counties have rates of children in foster care due to parental substance abuse higher than NC average

SOUTHEASTERN NC -- Thousands of children are flooding the North Carolina foster care system because of parental substance abuse problems worsened by the opioid epidemic, according to a new report by the nonprofit group NC Child.

“The opioid epidemic is driving this crisis to a new level in our state,” said Whitney Tucker, research director at NC Child, in a statement.

On average, 39 percent of children entering foster care in North Carolina did so because of parental substance abuse issues. That number jumped 50 percent over the last decade, according to the report. Both Brunswick and New Hanover counties exceed the state average with 58 percent of cases in Brunswick and 41 percent of cases in New Hanover were caused by parental substance abuse issues. Only Pender County -- at 27 percent of cases -- came out below the state’s average.

Tucker said children are not just flooding the system, but staying longer. The result is children suffering from toxic stress caused by being removed from the home. The stress can create problems ranging from trouble concentrating to relationship issues and substance abuse.

“People don’t get rid of that kind of stress,” Tucker said. “They internalize it.”

New Hanover County Department of Social Services (DSS) Director Michelle Winstead said the county is working to address the issue through additional staff and community partnerships. DSS is brought in by police when drug charges and children are involved and the agency is alerted when babies are born drug dependent by the hospital. DSS also has a program aimed at reunification.

“Based on the number of children in foster care and the number of children who are being born drug-positive, opioid abuse continues to be an issue in this area,” Winstead said. “But the community and our leaders are making headway in their support of evidence-based programs and a collective impact approach to this issue. It will continue to take time for DSS to realign its services in conjunction with the community and to see a significant impact.”

The New Hanover County 2018-19 budget earmarked $315,000 to partner with a nonprofit agency to provide apartments and treatment services for pregnant women and women with children combating an addiction to substances. The program would be in addition to the new Healing Place, which the county and Trillium Health Resources are building to provide 100 beds for men struggling with substance use disorder.

“These programs are examples of our community collaborative efforts in response to the opioid epidemic, and are important steps to get individuals the help they need so that children can be reunited or remain with their parents,” Winstead said.

Tucker argued in her report closing the health insurance coverage gap so people can get treatment is one way to start to fix the problem. But it won’t solve all the issues related to substance abuse. That will take all facets of the community, Tucker said.

“Closing the coverage gap will allow more treatment so families will stay together,” she said. “This is just one step in the right direction."

Reporter Kevin Maurer can be reached at 910-343-2070 or Kevin.Maurer@GateHouseMedia.com.