At the Knox County Juvenile Court, special care is taken to protect the tiniest Tennesseans.

“We have close to 800 children in some kind of state custody right now. When I got on the bench we had 350 children in state custody. The entire increase is traced, unquestionably, to the opioid epidemic," explained Knox County Juvenile Court Judge Tim Irwin.

Those children represent a growing trend across Tennessee - grandparents taking on the role of caregivers for children due to drug abuse.

“A lot of them give up, they say 'I just can’t do this - take care of my kid, and bow out.' We have a ton of grandparents raising their grandchildren in this town," explained Irwin.

According to census data, in 2010, 177,701 kids in Tennessee lived in a home owned by a grandparent. About 72,000 lived in a home where grandparents were responsible for them, and 7,751 spent time in and out of the foster care system.

Fast forward five years and the picture isn’t improving.

“We know 86,000 children entered the foster care system in 2015. The second leading cause is substance abuse from the parents," explained Metro Drug Coalition Project Coordinator Deborah Crouse.

Knoxville’s Metro Drug Coalition is encouraging families in this situation to talk to their kids and break the cycle of drug abuse.

“Your mom and dad may be in jail from using drugs and I don’t want you to have to go through what your parents are going through," said Crouse.

Judge Irwin is faced with the tough task of taking children from their parents

“Active addicts don’t make good parents," Irwin said.

His fear is that as addicts turn from prescription drugs to heroin, more children will be left without parents.

“If you take enough of it, you’ll get a bad batch and you’ll be dead," Irwin explained.

Leaving another child without a parent for someone else to raise, and continuing the cycle of drug abuse.

You can find resources to get help here at Metro Drug Coalition.