Opioid Orphans: How the opioid epidemic is affecting children in Southwest Florida

Posted at 10:00 PM, Jul 03, 2017
and last updated 2017-07-04 06:53:12-04

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It's a horrifying thought for any parent; something happens to where you can't take care of your own children. That's a reality for a growing number of Southwest Floridians caught up in the opioid epidemic.

And their kids are finding themselves a part of a new generation of "opioid orphans."

In addicted newborns, the crying and shaking are symptoms of withdrawal called neonatal abstinence syndrome. The medical director of Lee Health's NICU tells Fox 4 that the situation is bad in Southwest Florida.  “We've seen about a 1200% increase in our admissions of for neonatal abstinence syndrome, “ says Dr. William Liu.

It a syndrome forcing doctors to make a difficult choice until babies can be safely weaned.  “We'll have to treat them with morphine,” says Dr. Liu.

The crisis haunts NICU social workers like Carolina Ferrer who see the suffering day after day.  “It's an agony. It is a pain.  If you were to ever encounter...go into the NICU and hear them when they're withdrawing, it is heartbreaking.”

Heartbreaking and expensive. With an increasing number of SWFL parents addicted to drugs, more of your tax dollars - which fund the Florida Department of Children and Famlies -- are needed in places like Lee County.

Between January and March of this year, 30% of our population in the NICU had DCF involvement. That's a very high number,” says Ferrer.

“Because the parents can't supervise their kid in any capacity when they're incapacitated by these opioids,” says Ray Fischer of Children’s Network of Southwest Florida.

The executive director of Hazelden Betty Ford Clinic in Naples tells Fox 4 that many of those kids are now being raised by relatives. “Part of our population in Lee and Collier county are people who thought they were coming down here to retire and they taking care of grandkids,” says Executive Director Brenda Iliff.

So many kids are now in need of care, Children's Network of Southwest Florida, which is in charge of finding them safe homes, can only beg for help.  “We need foster home desperately because of the sheer numbers of kids coming into care every day because of this crisis that's happening,” says Fischer.

A crisis complicated by many babies' inability to do the basics, like feed, bond or be consoled.

“We know these babies are at higher risk for abuse, probably, because they are difficult to deal with,” says Dr. Liu.

And he says as babies grow into toddlers and beyond, they're at higher risk of learning disabilities and behavioral issues.

“It's definitely given us a huge challenge to find caregivers for these children,” says Fischer.

A challenge, yes.  Impossible, no.

Ken Gallagher and his wife are have adopted a once-struggling toddler, and are fostering a baby -- one of 13 they've fostered in just two years.

“They just want to be loved and they're going through a traumatic experience,” says Jennifer Hynes-Gallagher.

Now the babies experience the love of a sibling from the couple's biological daughter and a strong parental connection.  Love that may our best hope to make sure no child of the opiod epidemic is left to struggle alone.

If foster parenting sounds like too much of a commitment, there are other things you can do, like volunteer to be a cuddler for these babies, or train to supervise a visit between a child and parents struggling to overcome addiction.

You can see what else you can do right now when you call 855-933-KIDS.