As the nation continues to grapple with the ongoing opioid addiction crisis, there is one group of victims who are frequently forgotten. These are the children of addicts, including those who are orphaned or removed from the home. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, substance abuse is the primary reason that minor children are placed in foster care.

Another tragic aspect that gets little attention is the alarming rise in the number of infants who are born addicted to opioids. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that the number of newborns suffering from neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) increased by nearly 80 percent during the first decade of the 21st Century.

Sadly, this is not the first time in US history that children have suffered because of their parents’ addictions. The first wave in recent decades came toward the end of the Vietnam conflict, when heroin addiction became endemic. During the 1980s, addiction to crack cocaine resulted in the death of approximately 1 person in 50,000, or roughly 5,000 people per year.

Addiction was seen as a moral failing and a form of criminal behavior rather than an illness. As a result, many addicted parents were imprisoned – and as a result, the child welfare system was overwhelmed. Children placed in foster care wound up in unhealthy and even dangerous situations. Once they reached the age of 18, they were thrust out of the system and found themselves on their own, with few resources available to assist them in transitioning to independent adulthood.

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who is currently taking legal action against Perdue Pharma on behalf of the Evergeen State, notes that out the thousands of child abuse and neglect cases that come across his desk, nearly 50 percent involve opioid addiction.

And where is the federal government on this issue? Congress recently passed a bill known as the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA). The bill was signed into law as part of the Bipartisan Budget Act in February, allowing state governments to use federal funds in order to prevent children from being placed into foster care and placing limits on the length of time a child can be kept in a group home or facility. It also provides federal resources for mental health services, addiction treatment, and skill training for parents of at-risk families.

The question at this point is that, given the magnitude of the opioid crisis, will the FFPSA be enough? As society learned during the crack cocaine epidemic, the effects on families can last for generations. It was more than a quarter-century before the child welfare system was able to recover. While state and local governments continue to struggle in dealing with addiction and move forward in attempting to hold pharmaceutical companies accountable for their role in creating the crisis. It remains to be seen whether or not the long-term damage to children and their offspring can be contained.

K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.