Foster Youth and Drug Addiction

There you are, a stranger in someone else’s family, with a hollowed out gut that aches and churns relentlessly…How far of a leap are drugs?

youth-drugsThere is no universally accepted cause of drug addiction, but if there was one, it would include relief from physical, mental and emotional pain. Foster youth are ripped from their families and positioned into state care due to neglect or abuse; those two words—neglect, abuse—hold a vast and terrifying array of emotional and physical realities. Realities that, by definition, must be addressed.

“The narrative of the foster youth has been hijacked by this idea that foster youth are just losers. Like it’s inherent, expected. The thing is, something has been done to them. I wish more people understood the loneliness.” Author of the poetry book Apocryphal and a successful editor and writer in New York City, Lisa Marie Basile was a foster youth from age 14 to 19.

In San Diego, California, the foster care system has on average 5,000 young people in care on any given day. According to a 2016 study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), it is possible that 35% of older youth in foster care have a substance use disorder. “I know the immense burden of loss and personal erasure that could lead to [criminal] behaviors. I was one of the luckier ones. That particular vice [drug addiction] skipped me,” Basile said. “But that was sheer luck, personal genetics. If I were a betting person, I would have bet my younger self would have been abusing drugs. I had all the reason to.”

Jeff Weiman, director of the San Diego Angels Foster Family Network, wrote about Basile’s “personal erasure” of foster youth in The San Diego Union-Tribune. “…some foster children have challenging behaviors as all have been traumatized. You would be too if by the age of six weeks you had figured out that none of your basic needs would be met no matter what you did.”

Personal erasure. Neglect. Abuse. A rapid, terrifying complete replacement of life as you know it, pulled from your school, home, siblings, pets, friends, and placed into a home that, however friendly, is a complete unknown. There you are, a stranger in someone else’s family, with a hollowed out gut that aches and churns relentlessly, no more anchored into this life than the wings of a butterfly in a storm. You have been spun from the only reality you’ve known into an alternate: how far of a leap are drugs? To cross from pain to escape, so easily. To take an action that is your own, not dictated by heartbreaking parents, strangers, or therapists. To claim your right to revolt.

Lacey Harden was in San Diego foster care from age 14 until adulthood. Avoiding experimenting with drugs or alcohol during those years because “growing up, I saw what drugs and alcohol did to others, specifically my parents,” she ended up addicted to methamphetamine in her early twenties. The stress of numerous foster care placements, group homes and physical illness in her young adult life, without the support of a family unit, cracked her determination to abstain. She folded into addiction breathtakingly quickly, storming to its center, jobless, rudderless, and hopeless.

Parental drug abuse is driving the enormous increase in foster care youth over the last five years. Up until then, the numbers declined, but as of 2014 (the last year statistics are available) the increase was at 3.5%. In San Diego, many more babies are now in need of foster care placement, many of them born drug addicted. Not only are these babies born experiencing withdrawal, they have long-term risks for medical, developmental, emotional and behavioral concerns. They are at higher risk for addiction.

Stephen Moore is the director of San Diego’s Voices for Children, a program for abused children in foster care which connects Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA volunteers, with foster youth. When foster children reach out for help with drug addiction, “we connect the dots for our kids, hold them accountable, help them with follow up, help them with treatment goals,” he said in a phone call. All foster children in San Diego County retain medical insurance until 26, which covers inpatient and outpatient treatments for drug addiction in centers like the San Diego County McAlister Institute. If they ask for help, Moore said, treatment comes within a day or two.  Read more “the fix”…


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