Drug Crisis Rattles Cherokee Nation, With More Children Born Addicted to Opioids and Moved into Foster Homes

A mother holds her infant son during a visit with him at a treatment center for opioid-dependent newborns in West Virginia in 2015. Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma is seeing an increase in the number of babies born addicted to opioids, new court papers show. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The number of prescription opioids sold on Cherokee National tribal lands is even higher than previously thought, and the resulting addictions are tearing families apart and threatening the existence of the tribe. Almost 90 million opioid pills were dispensed in the 14 Oklahoma counties that make up the Cherokee Nation's land last year, which means about 96 pills were sold to each adult.

"There is no legitimate explanation for numbers on this scale," Cherokee Nation Attorney General Todd Hembree said in a statement. "The opioid industry has a legal and moral duty to prevent diversion of the addictive and dangerous drugs they sell."

The new figures and details were disclosed in court papers filed by the Cherokee Nation as part of its lawsuit that accuses six companies, including Walmart and Walgreens, of boosting profits by illegally flooding Indian Country with prescription opioids. The companies have either said they follow laws and are committed to helping solve the opioid crisis or didn't respond to requests for comment.

The lawsuit is reportedly the first time a tribe has sued drug companies over their alleged role in the opioid epidemic, and is one of at least 25 suits filed in the past year by local governments against the companies that make up the $13-billion-a-year opioid industry.

An affidavit filed by the head of Cherokee Nation Indian Child Welfare, Nikki Baker Limore, described the problem. Over the past five years there has been a steady increase in the number of adults abusing opioids, and in the number of Cherokee babies born dependent on opioids. "Many of these babies must immediately receive a morphine drip as part of their treatment to avoid the harshest symptoms of withdrawal," Limore wrote in the affidavit, adding that the babies suffer developmental and cognitive problems and are more likely to have health and behavioral problems when they begin school.

About 40 percent of the cases handled by Limore's office involve opioid abuse, and many of the babies and children who enter Cherokee Nation custody must be placed in foster or adoptive homes. It's difficult for the agency to find foster parents for drug-addicted babies, however, and the Cherokee Nation doesn't have enough homes for all the children born to opioid-addicted mothers.

More than two-thirds of the Cherokee children who need foster or adoptive homes have to be placed with non-Cherokee families, totaling about 1,000 children each year. "The placement of the next generation of Cherokee children in non-Cherokee homes is one of the single greatest threats to the Cherokee nation," Limore wrote. "These children are raised without learning how to speak the Cherokee language, and without learning the traditions, history, and customs of the Cherokee people."

Cherokee Nation Attorney General Todd Hembree has said the drug distributors targeted by the lawsuit are guilty of allowing prescription opioids to fall into illegal distribution channels; failing to alert regulators of extreme volume; and incentivizing sales of the drugs with financial bonuses. The lawsuit was filed in Cherokee Nation District Court; the defendant companies have argued tat the tribal court doesn't have jurisdiction over the case.