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Editorial: Opioid epidemic burdens foster care system

The national opioid crisis, in which Western New York is fully and tragically ensnared, is a tentacled beast. Its cascading influence spreads far beyond the users who are in the grip of a life-threatening addiction and includes spiraling numbers of children whose lives are being upended.

Erie County’s Department of Social Services is necessarily removing children from homes where parents are addicted, but what was a trickle has, in the words of one observer, become a tsunami. And there aren’t enough suitable places to house these children. That puts them at risk of separation from family, including their own siblings, and of the inattention of some foster parents who lack sufficient interest in the welfare of their charges.

That’s a crisis spinning off from a crisis and it punishes the most innocent among us. As with the opioid crisis, itself, the solutions to this problem won’t be easy to identify, but among them is to make foster parenting more appealing to greater numbers of qualified people. That might require overhauling the entire system, but it’s past time for that, anyway.

This is just one of the ways that the opioid crisis spins off storms of destruction. It also punishes spouses, parents, employers, landlords, schools, police, neighborhoods, taxpayers and others. But what is more tragic than the bewildering and life-altering impact on children whose only mistake was to be born to parents in the thrall of addiction?

It doesn’t matter to the child if a parent made a bad decision in experimenting with heroin or if the parent was an innocent victim of a painkiller prescribed for good reason. Both feed the opioid crisis and both create parents unfit for the responsibility.

There is no reason to believe the epidemic will come under control anytime soon. That means that governments, families and others will have to do a better job of dealing with its consequences, particularly as they affect children.

Foster parenting isn’t for everyone, but it may be for more than those who currently offer their homes to children in crisis. Part of the solution must be for social service agencies to expand and sharpen their efforts to attract people who are willing and qualified to do the hard work required of a foster parent. Schools, churches, service organizations and other groups can be part of a more sophisticated outreach.

Albany and Washington need to help, most obviously by making more money available to find and support foster parents in their efforts. Albany this year provided more than $200 million to help combat the opioid crisis, mainly to fund treatment of addicts. That’s clearly appropriate, but it needs to give more attention to the needs of children taken from their homes.

In Washington, meanwhile, President Trump recently declared a “public health emergency,” declaring the opioid crisis to be the “worst drug crisis in American history.” But he provided no additional funding. Money is necessary.

Children growing up in these conditions cannot help but be scarred. The nation needs to work fast to help them survive their own crisis.

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