Children and the Opioid Epidemic

In the United States, opioid drug abuse has become a national public health crisis.  Every day more than 115 people in the US die from opioid overdose.  This issue impacts every race, gender, age group and income class.  The problem in Ohio is especially alarming.  Ohio currently has one of the nation’s highest overdose rates – more than 4,000 Ohioans died from opioid drug overdose in 2017.  This problem has the potential to harm our children in several ways.  Fortunately, information is available to help families understand the problem and learn where to get help.  This guide is intended to provide an overview of how the opioid epidemic affects children and to provide a list of useful resources, many of which can be found on RedTreehouse.org.

What are Opioids?

Opioids are a certain class of drugs that include heroin and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. Also included in the opioid class are pain relievers available by prescription, such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, and many others. While these prescription pain relievers are legal, they are often abused or illegally bought and sold.  These drugs are highly addictive and have long term medical, physical, and even social repercussions. For more information see this National Institute on Drug Abuse Fact Sheet.  

The Opioid Epidemic and Children

The users of opioids are not the only victims of the opioid epidemic. Children of opioid abusers are also victims of the epidemic that is destroying families and communities.  It is estimated that 25% of children in the United States grow up in homes where substance abuse is present.

Children of opioid users are more likely to experience:

  • Poor performance in school
  • Emotional and behavioral problems
  • Low self-esteem
  • A higher risk of physical, verbal, or sexual abuse
  • A higher risk of developing anxiety or depression
  • Earlier onset of experimentation with drugs or alcohol
  • A greater chance of becoming addicted once they start using drugs or alcohol

The American Addiction Centers’ Guide for Children of Addicted Parents has more on this topic.  

The Surge in Child Protection Services

In recent years the use and abuse of opioid drugs has skyrocketed across the country. With the use of opioid drugs surging, the number of children adversely affected by this epidemic has also risen. Every day, more and more children are entering the child services system. Studies show that at least half of the children in Ohio entering the system had parents using drugs at the time of removal from the home, and 28 percent of those removals involved opioids. The Public Children Services Association of Ohio (PCSAO) discusses this issue here.

Kinship Care Rising

The number of children in protective services is not the only effect of parental opioid abuse. The number of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other families caring for the children of drug users is also rising.  PBS discusses the rise in the number of grandparents raising their grandchildren because of opioid addiction here.  When family members step in to care for or raise children in place of parents, this is called “kinship care."  For more information on kinship care, see the Red Treehouse guide Kinship Care and Grandfamilies.

Infants of the Opioid Epidemic

In addition to the social and emotional effects the opioid epidemic has had on children, there are also physical effects on infants of mothers who use opioids during pregnancy. Opioid use during pregnancy can lead to many physical, behavioral, and cognitive problems. For example, Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) is a withdrawal syndrome caused by opioid exposure during pregnancy. Child Trends reports that the occurrence of NAS has increased by 300% between 1999 and 2013.  

Some symptoms of NAS include:

  • tremors
  • excessive crying
  • poor feeding; and
  • rapid breathing.

Teen Use of Opioids

Unfortunately, adults are not the only victims of opioid drug misuse and abuse. Although the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that opioid drug use by teens has dropped significantly during the past five years, there is still cause for great concern.  Despite the drop in the use of opioids, there has been an alarming increase in teen overdoses of heroin and fentanyl.  For an interesting explanation, see the NIDA for Teens blog post Teen Drug Use is Down – but Teen Overdoses are Up.   

Additional Resources

Red Treehouse has tools that can help families dealing with opioid addiction.  Check out these resources.


This guide was developed as part of a project made possible by a Grant from the Ohio State Bar Foundation.  The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent those of the Ohio State Bar Foundation.

Lead researcher/author: Ricardo Vidal, J.D. Candidate, 2019, RedTreehouse.org Legal Intern

Jeanine Carroll