Pennsylvania County Revisits Crackdown on Child Custody for Addicts

Q: Does drug addiction mean automatic loss of child custody?

A Pennsylvania county has taken a ground-breaking approach to handling child custody cases where a custodial parent is abusing or addicted to opioids or other drugs.

Drug addiction and child abuse reporting laws have combined to become a perfect storm for an already overloaded national foster care system in desperate need of more foster parents.

With opioid addiction becoming a national epidemic and states, including Pennsylvania, requiring those who work closely with children to be “mandatory reporters” of any suspected incidents of child abuse– often within 24 hours of witnessing the suspected abuse incident or evidence– the traditional knee-jerk reaction of immediately removing children from the substance abusing parent and placing them into foster care may no longer be feasible. The foster care system can’t keep up with the demand.

Consider the sobering statistics:

  • In 2015, 19% of the total child abuse allegations in Pennsylvania were parental substance abuse cases.
  • 15,618 Pennsylvania children are in foster care because of parental substance abuse.
  • In 30 to 40% of cases of parental substance abuse, the parent loses custody.

Pennsylvania may have a more viable solution to the problem than simply pleading for more foster homes.

The Westmoreland County Children’s Bureau has adopted a two-pronged system to address the crisis. First, it lowered the “toxicity threshold on drug tests”, which resulted in earlier detection, earlier intervention, and better monitoring of at-risk parents–sometimes “preventing the initial addiction from occurring”.

In addition, the bureau adopted a “using does not equal automatic child removal” policy, instead determining on a case-by-case basis whether the parent’s substance abuse was an actual danger to the safety of the child. This policy, or practice, has resulted in significantly fewer children being placed into foster care as a result of parental substance abuse – – dropping from “57 two years ago to 37 last year”. In other counties without this policy, the numbers are not dropping.

Citing its ultimate goal of keeping the family together, the bureau director looks at the bigger picture when determining whether the child is in a safe environment. If one of the child’s caretakers has substance abuse problems, it doesn’t “necessarily mean the child is unsafe” or needs to be placed in foster care and removed from that addicted parent. The bureau favors caseworkers customizing plans and closely monitoring individual situations.

For example, one mother in her mid-20s was an opioid addict who nearly died from an overdose one day while her toddler son was in an adjoining room. She was vigilant not to do drugs in his presence. She and her toddler son lived in the stable home of her sober mother who found her in time to save her life that day. In light of many factors including the supportive family environment, the addicted mother’s willingness to kick the addiction, and a caseworker’s plan of close monitoring, the mother was able to get clean and keep her child during the recovery process.

If you are facing a child custody issue, whether you are seeking custody or defending against a claim for custody, the Pennsylvania Law Office of Gary R. Swavely, Jr. can help you navigate the complexities of this area of family law.  We’ve been serving clients in Reading and the surrounding counties for over 25 years. Call 610-816-6366 to schedule a consultation.