COAs in Foster Care
A Group in Need of Advocacy
By Iris Smith, MPH
The National Association for Children of Alcoholics was founded on the belief that children of alcoholics and other drug users have a right to protection from the physical, psychosocial and emotional abuse caused by parental addiction.
Children of alcoholics and other addicts (COSAs) are frequently the victims of neglect and/or abuse as a consequence of the chaotic and uncontrollable lifestyle of active drug using parents. Consequently, they are also more likely to be placed in foster care. Although removing children from dysfunctional and/or abusive homes is often intended to be in the child's best interest, placement in foster care can increase the risk of later developmental problems.
Many children of alcoholics and other addicts will enter the foster care system at a very young age. Children who are prenatally exposed to alcohol and/or other drugs are often identified shortly after birth. The current trend toward criminalization of pregnant alcohol and other drug (AOD) users is likely to increase the number of young COSAs who are identified and removed from parental custody. It has been estimated that as many as 80% of all identified prenatally AOD exposed infants of untreated addicted mothers will be placed in foster care in the first year of life. In some communities, child welfare referrals for this population have contributed to a 3000% increase in the number of drug dependency petitions filed in the past five years (Jones, McCullough, & Dewoody, 1992).
Once placed, children of AOD using parents may remain in foster care longer and be moved from one placement to another more frequently than other children. Such multiple placements can be as damaging to a child's emotional development as remaining with the dysfunctional family of origin. To further complicate this issue, in many areas of the country there is a shortage of foster care providers, thus increasing the likelihood that COSAs will experience multiple placements, many in locations far away from their families of origin.
Children who are prenatally exposed to alcohol and other drugs are at increased risk of premature birth and other developmental problems, including exposure to HIV infection. Children with medical needs are often harder to place in foster care, since that may require specialized skills and resources. As a consequence, many of these children remain in medical facilities for extended periods of time.
Concern for COSAs in the foster care system led to the development of NACoA's second postion statement. Following are NACoA's policy recommendations for children in foster care.
Iris Smith, MPH, is Deputy Commissioner for Programs, Georgia Department of Juvenille Justice.
(The NACoA Position Statement on children of alcoholics in foster care is available online here and in print from the NACoA national office.)