The nationwide opioid epidemic is becoming a common factor in child-welfare cases across Washington, according to new internal data from the Washington State Attorney General’s Office.
Nearly half of the office’s child-dependency cases, which involve children who are abused, neglected or abandoned, involve opioid abuse, according to a survey of lawyers in the office taken in July.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson said the survey is meant in part to send a message to state lawmakers and regulators.
“When one is facing a crisis, we need to act like it,” Ferguson said. “Right now, Washington state is simply not doing that.”
Like states across the country, Washington has struggled to address a worsening opioid epidemic. About two people here die each day of opioid-related overdoses, according to the state Department of Health. The problem has been particularly acute in areas like Snohomish County, where the county now conducts an overdose point-in-time count.
In total, opioid-overdose deaths cost Washington more than $34 billion between 2012 and 2016, according to a federal study. Ferguson has advocated for new regulations, including a limit on the number of pills doctors can prescribe.
About 100 attorneys in the Attorney General’s Office handle cases involving dependent children and termination of parental rights. In a survey, 76 of those attorneys said that opioid abuse was a factor in 47.9 percent of their dependency cases and 39.9 percent of parental-rights cases.
It’s unclear whether those rates are on the rise since the office has not done a similar survey in the past. However, Ferguson said opioid addiction is “playing a significant role” in such cases and that caseloads may be on the upswing. In King County, the state’s most populous, the total number of dependency cases grew by 54 percent from 2009 to 2014.
Assistant attorneys general who handle child-welfare cases have an average caseload of 81, exceeding the 60-case recommendation of the American Bar Association, according to a budget request submitted by the Attorney General’s Office to the state Legislature for 2019 through 2021. Those caseloads have stayed roughly consistent over the last five years but are rising in certain counties in part due to the opioid crisis, according to the request. The office wants increased state funding to hire 48 new attorneys, plus other staff.
The survey data doesn’t offer details about the specifics of the child-welfare cases or where in Washington they occurred. However, stories from attorneys shed some light on how the epidemic shows up in court.
One case involved a mother who previously worked as a nurse but lost her job after stealing drugs and ended up homeless, according to anonymous anecdotes from the attorneys provided by the Attorney General’s Office. Her six children are now in different locations, split between foster care and out-of-state treatment programs.
In another case, the state removed three children from the care of two parents who used heroin after their third child tested positive for opiates at birth. The parents were evicted and the father later overdosed and died. The mother then “disappeared into her addiction” and stopped visiting her children.
Another lawyer wrote that one case involved a 28-year-old mother who said she had abused opioids and alcohol since she was 13. The woman experienced delusions that “ghosts and demons possessed her and her child,” the lawyer wrote. The woman said she had tried to stop using, but that withdrawal made the delusions worse.
King County Superior Court Judge Patrick Oishi, who has presided over dependency cases for two years, said about a third of the cases he hears involve opioids. In some cases, parents are ordered to undergo drug treatment or other services or take periodic drug tests, but cases vary widely.
“No two dependency cases are identical,” Oishi said. “Different parents present differently. Some have more access to support; some are more motivated to address their parental deficiencies.”
Ferguson has lobbied state lawmakers to limit the number of pills doctors can prescribe and to require doctors to check a database that shows how many other prescriptions a patient has received for opioids. Neither proposal passed the Legislature. Several state agencies are now developing rules to reduce opioid prescriptions.
The new survey numbers “add another perspective to this issue, which is a voice that really can’t be heard: kids,” Ferguson said. “They’re not in a position to advocate for themselves, but are most certainly being harmed in ways that are hard to imagine.”