Examining Opioid Epidemic's Impact on Children and Families

While opioid addiction has been broadly recognized as a national epidemic, one aspect of the crisis has so far received little concerted attention: the short- and long-term effects on children and adolescents whose parents are addicted to opioids. Now, a new United Hospital Fund project—Ripple Effect: The Children and Kinship Caregivers Affected by the Opioid Epidemic—will examine and seek to address the impact of parental opioid addiction on those youngsters' mental health, development, and family responsibilities.

Ripple Effect is being generously supported by a $60,000 grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The Milbank Memorial Fund is also collaborating on the project.

Activities will include convening a two-day meeting in the fall of 2018 of a working group of 25 to 30 national and local experts in child development, family policy, addiction treatment, child welfare, and state and local government. The goal is to produce a research agenda, policy options, and practice guidelines for a wide range of agencies and professionals that work with families and children affected by opioid misuse. UHF staff will also produce a comprehensive report on the issue, including case studies, key recommendations, and a blueprint for action.

The team will draw in part on lessons learned from the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which, like the opioid crisis, left too many children in foster care, caring for younger siblings, or suffering from behavioral health issues.

“About half of opioid overdose deaths occur among men and women ages 25 to 44, and it's reasonable to assume that many are parents,” says Carol Levine, director of UHF's Families and Health Care Project. “It's vitally important that we understand the impact of parental opioid misuse and opioid-related deaths on children. We anticipate that our work will produce the first systematic look at this understudied but vitally important aspect of the opioid epidemic.”

The project will be jointly led by Ms. Levine and Suzanne Brundage, director of UHF's Children's Health Initiative, and Patricia S. Levinson Fellow. Earlier this year, Ms. Levine's commentary “The Statistics Don't Capture the Opioid Epidemic's Impact on Children” appeared in the online magazine STAT.