Across the United States, the 21st century has been marked by a well-documented opioid epidemic. In 2017, 1.7 million people suffered from prescription opioid use disorders, and 652,000 suffered from heroin use disorders. As a result, increasing numbers of children whose parents use opioids are being raised by relatives. By 2017, 2.6 million children were in the care of relatives. Despite a growing abundance of research on individuals facing opioid use disorders, our understanding of the reverberating impacts on families remains limited. In my dissertation, I explore: 1) how the criminal justice and child welfare systems make child custody decisions for families navigating addiction, and 2) how biological parents and relative caretakers navigate and experience these drug-related child custody shifts.
I draw on data collected during four years of fieldwork in rural Appalachian Kentucky—a region which is not only considered the epicenter of the opioid epidemic but has also witnessed the largest increases in kinship care. This fieldwork includes observations at support groups, community events, and organizational meetings; 150 interviews with relative caretakers, biological parents, and key players from the child welfare, criminal justice, social welfare, and public health institutions which make up the addiction recovery complex; and my own experience living in rural Appalachia and volunteering with the institutions and organizations that serve the studied population.
My findings demonstrate how social policy can inflict additional conflict, stress, and trauma on families navigating addiction, and how these hardships are disproportionately experienced by families who are poor, geographically isolated, and lack social connections to players in the addiction recovery complex. These findings contribute to our understanding of how intersecting class and place inequalities are embedded within the criminal justice, child welfare, and health care systems, and they shed light on social repercussions of the opioid crisis that will far outlast an individual’s own experience with drug use disorder. After graduation, I plan to turn my dissertation into a book.