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Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, drug-involved overdose deaths were rising in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 1999, there were less than 20,000 recorded drug-involved overdose deaths. By 2019, that number had jumped to over 70,000. The type of drugs causing overdose deaths has also changed. While in 1999, most drug-involved overdose deaths were caused by cocaine and prescription opioids, by 2019, the number of drug-involved overdose deaths caused by synthetic opioids, primarily fentanyl, had dramatically increased to significantly out-number other types of drugs.

Drug overdose deaths involving opioids dramatically increased from 1999 to 2019. Drug overdose deaths involving heroin also increased from 1999 to 2016 when it began to level off. Drug overdose deaths involving psychostimulants, primarily methamphetamines, also substantially increased between 1999 and 2019.

It is no surprise that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated drug abuse and addiction issues in the United States. According to Nora D. Volkow, MD of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there are indicators that suggest that the pandemic has had an impact on overdose deaths. In an article for Forbes, she pointed out some data sources to support this. First, the CDC provisional drug overdose death count showed an increase in overdose deaths through April 2020. The Overdose Detection Mapping Application Program also showed an increase in suspected overdoses following the enactment of stay-at-home orders. Finally, data from the National Emergency Medical Services Information Systems showed an increase in overdose deaths after the first few months of the pandemic, the highest rates being in May 2020.

Dr. Volkow also stated that there have been reports not only of rising overdose deaths, but that substance abuse has increased as well. One study published in October 2020 by Justin K. Niles, Jeffrey Gudin, Jeff Radcliff, and Harvey W. Kaufman found that though clinical drug testing had decreased in 2020, among the tests that were done, positive tests for non-prescribed fentanyl increased significantly, as well as dangerous drug combinations with fentanyl, including amphetamines, benzodiazepines, cocaine, and opiates.

In another study published in September 2020 by Jacob J. Wainwright, Meriam Mikre, and Penn Whitley found that drug test positivity rates among individuals with or at risk for substance use disorders increased for cocaine, fentanyl, heroin, and methamphetamines from four months before the COVID-19 emergency declaration to four months after the declaration.

Nevada has not been immune to the trends of substance use and abuse. An article from the Las Vegas Sun from July 2020 reported that there had been an increase in Nevada in people unknowingly testing positive for opioids, indicating that other drugs, such as methamphetamines, cocaine, and even marijuana were being laced with fentanyl.

In 2018, the Centers for Disease Control reported that Nevada had the highest amphetamine death rate in the nation. According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2017, Nevada’s rate for drug overdose deaths was around the national average – 21.6 in Nevada, and 21.7 for the United States as a whole.

Those numbers may be rising. Per an article for the Nevada Independent, from January to May 2020, Nevada experienced a 23% jump in opioid-related overdose deaths from the year prior. The article did, however, point out that opioid-related overdose deaths peaked in Nevada in 2011 and have been declining since then. Experts do worry that some of the progress made will be un-done due to the pandemic.

In conjunction with rising rates of drug addiction, the COVID-19 pandemic has also had effects on children’s safety. According to CNN, reports of alleged child abuse have dropped considerably since the pandemic began. While this may sound like good news, it is actually a troubling statistic. This is due to the fact that individuals like teachers, counselors, and coaches are typically required to report suspected child abuse. With most schools out of session and operating remotely, this means less in-person contact with students – something that can potentially mean that child abuse rates are not going down, they are just going unreported.

Experts are therefore, justifiably, very concerned about the effect that COVID-19 will have on children, particularly children who are in at-risk homes and who may not currently have access to the resources to which they may normally have access.

Substance abuse can have severely detrimental effects on children’s development and well-being. According to a study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), as of 2014, about one in eight children lived in households with a parent who had a substance use issue. One in ten children lived in households with a parent who had an alcohol issue, and about one in 35 children lived in households with a parent who had an issue with illicit drugs.

Studies have shown that children of parents with a substance use disorder were generally more likely to be in a lower socioeconomic status. They also were more likely to have difficulties academically and socially, and had higher rates of mental and behavioral disorders.

Most striking, however, is the fact that children with a parent who struggles with substance abuse are more likely to display substance abuse symptoms themselves. For example, children who have a parent who struggles with alcohol use are four times more likely to have symptoms of alcohol use disorder themselves. They are also at greater risk for depression, anxiety, and parental abuse and neglect. Finally, illicit drug use and abuse can lead to functional impairments with children, as well as mental and behavioral disorders.

The National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare reports that over the last thirty years, there have been changes in children being removed from homes and substance abuse. They cite the increase of opioid abuse as a major factor in this. They report a 16.8% increase in removal of children from a parent’s home for substance abuse from 2000 to 2016. In 2000, roughly 18.5% of removals listed substance abuse as a contributing factor, while that number rose to over 35% in 2016.

Substance abuse is a serious factor when children are involved. Several of the factors the courts consider when they determine the best interest of a child for custody can involve substance abuse. For example, the “ability of the parents to cooperate to meet the needs of a child.” If one parent is struggling with addiction, that parent may not be able to adequately meet their child’s needs. Addiction can also cause some individuals to become paranoid, irrational, unusually confrontational or, the opposite, completely neglectful, which can affect their ability to co-parent.

Additionally, the court considers the “mental and physical health of the parents,” as well as the needs of the child. A substance abuse issue can be seen as the court as a mental or physical health issue, which can subsequently affect that parent’s ability to provide for their child. The court also considers the nature of the relationship of the child with a parent and if there is any history of abuse or neglect. A parent with substance abuse issues may have a strained or volatile relationship with their child, particularly an older child, and substance abuse can lead to abusive or neglectful behavior.

Parents who suspect or know that a co-parent is struggling with substance abuse should act quickly to mitigate the detrimental impact such abuse can have on a child. An experienced child custody attorney can assist these parents in protecting their children.

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