Substance abuse reaches beyond the individual, impacting families and, inevitably, kids

Substance abuse can be a very personal problem, but treatment counselors and child welfare officials say it reaches well beyond the individual, affecting children, families and even the community.

“We believe addiction is a family disease and it impacts everyone,” said Blake Harvey, adolescent residential program supervisor with Community and Family Resources. CFR is a comprehensive addiction treatment agency active in 10 counties in central Iowa, including Webster and Hamilton.

Family is the fundamental building block of our society, he said. It is where children first learn social skills, attitudes and values. When the family is dysfunctional or disrupted due to drugs and alcohol, children are often the ones who pay the price because they miss out on the attention, instruction and care needed to become well-balanced, functioning adults.

“Perhaps the most common affect we see is children who grow up without knowing how to deal with their emotions,” Harvey said. “Instead, they learn it’s acceptable to abuse drugs and alcohol to deal with difficult feelings or escape uncomfortable situations.”

These children consequently have a higher likelihood of developing substance abuse disorders of their own, he said. But, even if they avoid such a path, they still have emotional issues.

“They end up having a whole different set of scars,” Harvey said.

You may see them dive into sports or academics, he said, trying to compensate for the poor behaviors and chaos caused by the one in the family using drugs or drinking. They will also take on adult responsibilities in the household and become the parent to other siblings. This is what counselors refer to as the “family hero role.” This group of adolescents puts a great deal of pressure on themselves and has been identified as having a high rate of suicidal thoughts as a result.

Such skewed family dynamics ripple out to impact the community.

For instance, children with substance abuse going on at home often struggle in school, Harvey said. Their family life lacks structure and daily routines so they have a hard time following authority or basic rules. This can lead to classroom disruptions, behavior problems and poor grades.

Further, Harvey said, children whose parents are dealing and using drugs are at a greater risk of being neglected, abused and exposed to illegal activities and dangerous situations. They are then referred to foster care and the juvenile court system.

42 percent

According to the Iowa Department of Human Services, approximately 42 percent of the removal of children from their homes in 2016 was due to a parent’s drug abuse.

DHS is concerned about the effects drug use and exposure has on children, said Amy McCoy, public information officer.

That is why the department worked with legislators to amend the definition of child abuse to specifically include a caregiver who uses, manufactures or distributes drugs such as meth even when the child is not present, as well as a caregivers who use cocaine, opium or heroin while the child is present.

If a child is removed from the home it results in a Child In Need of Assistance designation that lands the family in juvenile court. However, officials said adults and parents with such a case who are serious in addressing their substance abuse and making their homes better environments for their children can be referred to Family Treatment Court.

“We surround the family with a lot of support,” said Katy Thoreson, Family Treatment Court coordinator for Webster County, “but with that also comes a lot of accountability.”

Participation in the program is voluntary, she said. People are only enrolled after they observe a session of family court and understand the stipulations and obligations they are agreeing to follow. They will be drug tested on a frequent basis and they must attend a drug court session once a week.

The program consists of four phases, each building upon the progress made during the previous phase. It can take between 12 and 18 months to complete the goals for each phase, determined on a case by case basis. Services are provided through DHS and other community partners as participants establish sobriety and work to put their lives in order and reunify with their children.

Additionally, a new curriculum will be implemented in the spring that will specifically focus on strengthening the family unit, Thoreson said.

Substance abuse can leave a family with strained relationships. The new curriculum will bring participating families together to share a meal and take part in activities meant to rebuild bonds between parent and child.

“They come in struggling, maybe even broken,” she said, “but we want them to graduate feeling strong and able to re-engage in the community.”

Why should you care?

It has been estimated by the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment that nationally more than 9 million children live in homes where a parent or other adult uses illegal drugs. These children are three times more likely to be verbally, physically or sexually abused. They are also four times more likely to be neglected. This matters because children who experience child abuse and neglect are:

• 59 percent more likely to be arrested as juveniles;

• 28 percent more likely to be arrested as an adult;

• 30 percent more likely to commit violent crimes.

Iowa is not immune to the problem.

According to the Iowa Youth Survey done in 2016, 14 percent of the teens and adolescents who completed the survey said they were living with someone in their home who has a serious alcohol or drug problem. What does that really mean? Of a total of 84,703 students in grades eighth and 11th in both private and public schools, 11,858 students live with the effects of substance abuse.

Additionally, according to the Department of Human Services, in 2016, 1,522 children were found to have the presence of drugs in their systems. This includes children born addicted to drugs, a number that increased this past year by more than 350 babies.

Family Treatment Court

Family Treatment Court started in Webster County in 2014 with seven parents participating. Enrollment has increased each year since, with 25 parents taking part in 2016.

• To date, 12 parents have successfully completed the program, impacting 19 children.

• Every parent who has graduated has had the CINA case closed with the family remaining together or reunited if the child was taken from the home, Thoreson said.

• If participants chose to withdraw before graduation, only 33 percent went on to be reunited with their children.

• If the parents were discharged from the program for failing to comply, only 6 percent were able to progress enough to get their children back.