By John Shiffman
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Key U.S. senators said on Tuesday they are crafting a law that would allow states to use federal foster care funds to help opioid-addicted parents raise their infants.
The senior Republican and Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee envision the law as part of a comprehensive effort to address the opioid crisis with increased prevention, treatment and law enforcement.
"Children and families are relying on us to take this important step,” committee chairman Sen. Orin Hatch, a Republican of Utah, said during the hearing.
The committee’s ranking Democrat, Ron Wyden of Oregon, cited a recent Reuters investigation, which documented 110 preventable deaths of infants sent home with opioid-addicted parents ill-prepared to care for them. One drug-dependent baby is born in the United States every 19 minutes, the series found.
“A parent’s drug addiction is becoming a growing reason for removing children from their homes and placing them in foster care,” Wyden said.
Hatch and Wyden described only the general scope of the bill they planned to introduce. They did not offer specifics for the “Family First Act,” but their staffers said the money would likely come from existing funds.
Nancy Young, director of Children and Family Futures, which provides services to government welfare programs, testified that parental opioid use before and after birth places a profound strain on the foster care system. Shifting foster care funds to help parents cope with addiction will reduce costs, she said, in part because it will help keep mothers and infants together.
“We have the knowledge – we can no longer say we don’t know what to do,” said Young, who cited statistics from the Reuters investigation to describe the scope of the crisis.
Last month, responding to the report, a House committee overseeing child abuse opened an inquiry into whether the federal government is failing to enforce a federal law meant to protect thousands of babies born dependent on drugs each year. Reuters found that no more than nine states comply with a law that calls on hospitals to alert social workers whenever such a baby is born, and help them develop a “plan of safe care.”
Federal health and drug officials have declined to comment and, according to a congressional staffer, have not responded to the House queries.
(Reporting by John Shiffman; Editing by David Gregorio)