Recently, I was blessed with the opportunity to participate in the Your Voice Ohio community conversation on the opioid crisis. I was reminded again and again that the crisis affects all of us, from clergy doing our best to counsel those struggling with addiction, to employers who are losing both customers and workers to addiction, to overworked first responders who struggle mightily to save lives when people overdose.
As I listened to the stories of recovering addicts, family members who have lost loved ones, judges, doctors and others, I realized there’s one group of victims that’s not getting nearly as much attention as it deserves: our children.
Every 25 minutes a child is born suffering from Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS), which happens when babies are exposed to drugs, most often opioids, in the womb. The symptoms — which range from tremors to seizures to uncontrollable crying — are heartbreaking, and most of the children who are affected can only recover with extensive care.
Far too many children are also living in homes where drug abuse is occurring. That’s one of the many “Adverse Childhood Experiences” (ACES) that can induce a prolonged activation of the stress response system and impair development of children’s brains and immune systems.
ACES can negatively affect health, well-being and productivity throughout life. In fact, one study found children who experienced more than four childhood traumas were three times more likely to abuse prescription pain relievers and five times more likely to engage in injection drug use in adulthood. It’s a vicious cycle those of us in ministry see way too often, with parental drug use creating adverse experiences for children, who become more apt to abuse drugs because of those experiences.
The epidemic is also tearing children away from their families. In 2016, parental drug abuse was a precipitating factor for 34 percent of children who were removed from their homes and put into foster care. Many communities are finding foster care placements more and more difficult as demand increases, leaving fewer potentials placements in stronger family environments.
Fortunately, there are solutions that can help lessen the effects of these traumatic experiences on children. We can support well-established early childhood programs such as Head Start and Early Head Start as a refuge for children in households struggling with addiction. We should also support voluntary home visiting programs that bring nurses and trained mentors into the homes of young parents — including those struggling with addiction. These home visitors help parents understand how to respond appropriately to stressful situations, thereby reducing child abuse and neglect. Many home visiting programs also direct parents to treatment if they’re struggling with addiction.
The good news is that Congress acted honorably in passing the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018. That bill reauthorized the Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) program, which is a critical source of home visiting funding in all 50 states. The bill also committed $5.8 billion to the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG), which helps millions of working families afford child care. Lawmakers have also continued their support for Head Start and state preschool grants.
We can also thank Senator Rob Portman, who is the lead sponsor of the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) 2.0. Among other things, the legislation expands treatment options for pregnant and postpartum women and supports facilities that enable children to stay with their moms as they recover. It also encourages states to develop plans for hospitals and social services to report newborns who have been exposed to drugs, and offers funding to help teens recover from addiction.
Everyone who cares about families should support this legislation, even more so if they follow the teachings of Christ. In Matt 25:31-46, we recall the passage that reads “I was sick or in prison and you visited me,” which makes it clear we have a mandate to care for the afflicted. Recall too the words of Jesus at the end of the passage: “Then the King will say, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me – you did it to me.’”
Adam Will is Lead Pastor at Mount Herman United Brethren Church in Meigs County.