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Release Date: October 27, 2017
President Trump’s announcement yesterday reminded us all that the opioid crisis is a public health emergency, but in fact it is also a national emergency and we must do so much more. Daily we read articles and see searing reports about the opioid crisis. We’ve learned about the role of some doctors and drug companies in exacerbating it. We heard recently about how Congress was complicit in making it harder for the Drug Enforcement Administration to stop drug companies that were shipping suspicious amounts of opioids. We read about parents whose young adult sons and daughters end up in prison and who are desperate for treatment for loved ones. We keep learning more about the variety of opioids including heroin and extremely potent synthetic opioids like fentanyl coming from China. We read about the toll the continuing crisis and all the deaths are taking on first responders, police, treatment staff, nurses and doctors, families and grandparents being asked to step in to help. But we don’t read enough about its toll on children.
For the last two decades people across our nation have helplessly watched this rapidly escalating epidemic destroy families and entire communities. Most of us know some person or family in our community suffering from the impact of substance abuse disorder. Over 2.5 million Americans were addicted to opioid pain relievers or heroin in 2015. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports opioid-related deaths have more than quadrupled since 1999. Prescription and illicit opioids combined have killed more than 300,000 Americans since 2000. Ninety-one Americans die every day from an opioid overdose. This catastrophe of opioid addiction and deaths has fueled a heartbreaking increase of children in crisis.
From the earliest days of pregnancy children whose parents abuse opioids are at high risk. In addition to prenatal drug exposure, parents distracted by drugs and without help may be unable to provide children necessary care to grow and thrive. Children and teens are also susceptible to accidental opioid exposure and misuse. Whether children are born suffering from drug exposure, their parents’ addiction struggle leads to toxic stress or involvement with the child welfare system, or they use or are accidentally exposed to drugs themselves, opioid addiction has a devastating impact. There is much renewed interest in the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACEs) which tracks the impact of stressful and traumatic experiences on children’s later and adult development. Parental substance abuse is one of these ACEs as are emotional and physical abuse and separation from family which put children at risk of lifelong consequences.
The opioid crisis marks the third wave of widespread drug abuse over several decades, following the crack cocaine epidemic and the methamphetamine crisis (which has seen a resurgence in some states with the opioid epidemic). All have severely impacted children and families. But veteran child welfare professionals say the opioid epidemic has had the worst impact on child welfare systems they have seen.
Children can’t fix this crisis and desperately need adults to act to stem this epidemic. As the youngest victims wait they need physical, social, and emotional resources and supports to help them cope and move forward. The Washington Post asked the right question – “What kind of a childhood is that?” – in its title to a moving story about three siblings in West Virginia, two in their teens and a ten-year-old, who lost both parents to heroin overdoses. More must be done now.
Steps were taken in the Protecting Our Infants Act of 2015 and the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2016, but significantly greater investments are needed. Medicaid is a lifeline for treatment opportunities for addiction and must be maintained. It is hypocritical to declare the opioid crisis a public health emergency while trying relentlessly to slash the major lifeline for that emergency’s victims. All continuing attempts to end Medicaid as we know it must be fought back. The Final Report of the Commission on Combating Drug Abuse and the Opioid Crisis is scheduled to be submitted to the President on November 1st. While its charge is enormous, it must address the tragic plight of children and the special needs of pregnant women, parents, young and school-age children, and teens. Community-based prevention and treatment, including residential programs for parents and their children together, is essential. Criminal justice reforms also must recognize the special needs of parents and the importance and urgency of maintaining parent-child connections either at home or in kin or foster care settings. Too many children of parents struggling with opioids will start life with odds stacked against them. Their urgent needs must be met now.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.
Mrs. Edelman's Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.
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