A study published this month says West Virginia has the nation’s largest share of children who deal with opioid abuse by their parents.
People even slightly familiar with what’s happened in the state these past few years probably said, “No kidding, Sherlock,” or something like that.
The study, released Nov. 13 by United Hospital Fund and the Boston Consulting Group, said about 5.4% of West Virginia children were affected by opioid use in 2017. That was the highest rate in the nation and almost double the national rate of 2.8%.
Let’s bring those numbers down to a local level. For the 2019-20 school year, Cabell County schools reported enrollment of 12,111 students. Wayne County reported enrollment of 6,660. Add those together and you get 18,771 students. If 5.4% lived in a family affected by opioid use or addiction, that’s 1,014 children.
And these are just for children in public schools. These numbers, while just a local estimate based on statewide figures, do not include children in private schools or who are home-schooled.
The Census Bureau estimates West Virginia has about 376,869 people under age 18. If you take 5.4% of that, you have 20,351 children affected by a family member’s drug abuse.
Children in these families are more likely to develop an alcohol or drug disorder, are more likely to need special education and are 70 times more likely to be obese, according to the study. Other studies have shown they are more likely to be raised by grandparents or other family members or enter the state’s foster care system.
The opioid problem will likely cost the state $4 billion in services for children affected by addiction, the study says. It’s hard to believe the civil suits filed by counties and cities against drug makers and others who had a role in the recent epidemic of addiction will recover anywhere near that much money.
The study’s researchers said addiction’s effects on children have received little attention. That may be true nationally, but it’s certainly not true locally. Medical professionals in the Huntington area were treating children born with neonatal abstinence syndrome long before most of us had even heard the words “opioid” and “fentanyl.”
The founding and success of Lily’s Place in Huntington have drawn national attention. That operation, which cares for newborns born to addicted mothers and provides help for their families, has been seen as a model for such care. First Lady Melania Trump visited it two years ago to see it firsthand.
Drug abuse has been a problem here for decades, back to when drug dealers from Detroit dominated the market for illegal drugs. The more recent and devastating problems have come from the white-collar drug dealers working for pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors, who were aided by physicians who prescribed addictive medications irresponsibly.
Now that we have the numbers, what do we do? Much of the answer will lie in how state government allocates resources available to it. In the short term, Gov. Jim Justice and legislators must first know how much money will be available. Shortfalls in collections of personal income taxes and severance taxes indicate state agencies could face cutbacks in the middle of this fiscal year.
We’ll be electing a governor, half the State Senate and the entire House of Delegates next year. This is something every candidate will need to address in her or his stump speeches and town hall meetings.
This could also mean nonprofit and volunteer groups may need to alter their missions in how they help children in need.
It’s a big problem whose impacts will be seen for years.