Over the last few years, states have reported an increase—sometimes in the thousands—of the number of children removed from their homes and placed into foster care due to caregiver drug abuse. While drug and alcohol abuse can be found in any population, there are a high number of current and former foster children who abuse substances. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 115 Americans die after overdosing on Opioids each day.
A few short months ago, my brother was one of them. He was an infant when we entered the foster care system. Sometimes we were in the same home, but more often we were separated. I had 14 placements, and he had many more due to his behavior issues. I felt a tremendous pressure and duty to watch over him and keep him safe—sometimes from abusive foster parents, sometimes from himself.
My brother was 29 when he died of a heroin overdose, laced with Fentanyl. Our life paths took opposite directions. While I was in college and graduate school, he tried to dull the sadness from a lifetime of abuse and neglect. He felt betrayed and abandoned first, by our birth parents, then the myriad of people paid to take care of him. I see this feeling of betrayal play out in many youth who never nourished by a stable family. My brother never found security as a child or as an adult, and was floundering when opioids and other drugs offered temporary relief from his emotional pain.
Today I run a mental health and direct services agency for children, adults, and families. We often work with both teens in crisis, and the parents or caregivers who are desperate to help them. Children like my brother, who have grown up in disrupted, dysfunctional, or chaotic households, are much more prone to risky behaviors and decisions. This poses an additional set of challenges for especially foster and adoptive parents.
I agonize over what I could have done to help him, as do so many other siblings, parents, friends, teachers, and relatives who have also lost someone they cared about to addiction. If you are wondering what you can do to help, here are some key tips and information that might be useful tools for parents and teens avoiding drug use and addiction in the first place.
- Love Unconditionally. Kids and teens are complex creatures, but all crave positive reinforcement, attention, praise, and support. We have to be there for them, especially when they push us away. We all make mistakes and it is important that kids know they can come to you, even when they’ve done something wrong or are in a bad social situation.
- Create Trust. It is critical that your kids feel safe enough to disclose something important or private to you—or another trusted adult. Have regular conversations with your child and create opportunities to have one-on-one time with them. Make sure they feel secure enough to tell you anything that’s on their minds, and give them resources to go to if they feel they can’t disclose to you. When youth keep parts of their lives or identities hidden, it can fester and ultimately come out in unproductive ways. My adoptive parents would regularly leave books next to my bed on a wide variety of topics.
- Educate Yourself and Them. Especially if you have a teen, be sure to talk to them openly and freely about drug use and addiction. More so than any other point in history, teens have the world at their fingertips due to the regular use of social media, internet, and cell phones. Your kids and their peers are hearing, seeing, or experiencing happenings, trends, and breaking news at a lightning fast rates. Walk through some of these news stories, events, or tragedies and discuss them openly. Give youth quality resources for information on the impact of drugs and alcohol as well as resources for help if they are struggling in any way and are not comfortable sharing with you. Show them the facts, books, articles and personal stories that exist and talk about the many harmful ramifications of substance abuse. Research and know the organizations nationally and locally who can provide help, advice, or services.
- Keep them Engaged. Busy kids don’t have a lot of time to get into trouble. Starting in middle school, I was on several sports teams and was enrolled in after school activities and community clubs. I played basketball, softball, performed in school and community plays, and focused on my school work—because I knew that was my ticket out of the cycle of abuse and poverty into which I had been born. Try engaging kids in regular activities that build self-esteem, create positive social groups, and offer healthy outlets. Everyone is good at, or interested in something. Explore what your child’s abilities and likes are, and help them strengthen those skills or interests through positive outlets. Though we can never control all negative influences in their lives, we can provide ample opportunity for positive engagements, relationships, and experiences.
- Be Aware. Always be aware of what’s happening in your child’s life, and with their friends or your other family members. Know where they are going, and who they are with. Set appropriate curfews and expectations for check-ins and communication. Never be naive enough to think that these issues could never happen to your teen or your family.
Even families who do all of these things can experience tragedies. Youth and families must be reminded that there is help, and that they are not alone. I encourage parents struggling with various issues to seek online groups, community supports, or individualized counseling that will address topics and solutions specific to their family or loved one. No two cases are exactly the same, but there are thousands who are living with similar struggles on all sides of this issue.
Ashley Rhodes-Courter, MSW, is a former foster child, social worker, birth and adoptive mom, and the New York Times Bestselling author of Three Little Words, and Three More Words.