Drug addiction and the tearing fabric of families

Families are arguably the biggest victims of the rising opioid and methamphetamine crises facing the Iron Range and Minnesota. When a parent abuses drugs and becomes addicted, the ramifications create a ripple effect through the family unit and the surrounding community.

In the second part of Epidemic of the North, a multi-part series on the opioid epidemic in the state, we explore the impacts to families around the Northland and the people left rebuilding from the destruction of addiction.

Take Joseph and Little Man for example, whose full names were omitted for the safety of the child. Joseph went from being a part-time parent to a single dad with no known whereabouts to the mother, who up and left three years ago while battling addiction.

Joseph has no pictures of the boy’s mom to show him. Little Man may never know or understand his mother. Neither have any indication she is alive.

In the broad sense their story is a typical one as this epidemic rages on.

So is the story of Sean and Penny McCollor. They are foster parents in St. Louis County going on 20 years of taking children in need of a safe place to live while their parents battle inner demons.

They’ve cared for children from all different backgrounds in this time, those removed from the home as toddlers or older, others exposed to drugs in the womb that are battling developmental issues and they’ve adopted out of foster care.

There are more than 800 children in out of home placements on average in St. Louis County compared to 350 on average a decade ago. That number continues to rise with the opioid epidemic, meth and mental health issues fueling it.

Children are easily the most impacted by family separation, creating a traumatic stressor and loss of a sense of safety, according to The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, which was created by Congress in 2000 as part of the Children’s Health Act to address the standard of care and increase access to services for children and families.

The stress of being separated from parents for any amount of time can create issues down the road for the child, including an inability to form meaningful relationships, emotional disorders such as anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder and other prolonged or acute issues that can fester if not addressed through social workers and counseling.

These stressors can be more intense under traumatic forced removal situations or children exposed to drugs, violence and other crimes.

But children are only a part of the family tree that handles the stress of parental drug use. In Joseph’s case, the other parent may now carry burden the of single parenthood and full-time jobs, with the added stress of court dates, social worker calls and mandatory doctor’s appointments or parental visits.

Grandparents are becoming increasingly more active in taking children from addiction-ravaged homes, even if they are well-past their years of caring for younger ones. Add on the lack of child care options to these growing trends and a lagging number of licensed foster homes, and addiction is bending the entire support system for out-of-home placements in St. Louis County and the state of Minnesota.

It isn’t pretty out there.

Addiction of all kinds, most recently and more prominently the opioid epidemic, is testing society’s strength to take care of our neighbors. Thanks to people like the McCollors and extended families like Joseph’s and Little Man’s, the system isn’t losing, even if proactively addressing the issue remain elusive.

The fabric of families is being torn apart by addiction, and it will take a community effort along with our elected officials to fight back, while also helping those families sew themselves back together, one stitch at a time.

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