Opioid epidemic policies must be geared toward protecting children

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As someone who’s spent over a decade addressing challenges faced by people with a substance use disorder, I’ve heard many stories of triumph and heartbreak that occur within the long path to recovery. This summer, my concerns have focused on a question that too few are asking:

What will happen to kids deeply impacted by this epidemic?

{mosads}That was the main point of discussion at a panel I moderated in June, “Caring for the Youngest Victims of our Nation’s Opioid Crisis.” One panelist, Lincoln, New Hampshire Police Chief Ted Smith, recounted what it’s like to go into a home to find children neglected and endangered as their parents struggled with drug abuse.


Leah Curry, the president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing West Virginia spoke about the epidemic’s impact on the workforce and focused on the enormous measures her company is taking to help families develop strong parenting skills. A third panelist, Julie Redding, Clinical Director of the Community Caring Collaborative in Washington County, Maine, described struggles faced by rural parents trying to access treatment, and the potential trauma that too many children experience as a result.

All three panelists spoke about why some well-known early childhood programs help these kids overcome traumatic experiences that can affect their success in school and life. Support for these programs is driven by scientific awareness that the years from birth to age five are perhaps the most critical time for child development, with more than one million neural connections forming in a child’s brain every second.

If you’re a parent, you can see this early brain development in action as your child discovers the social and emotional joys of affection and belonging in the earliest years, and the development of language and early reading and math skills approaching kindergarten. Unfortunately, if you’re a child of an adult who’s abusing drugs, your growth may instead be hampered by a chaotic home environment, abuse, neglect, and deprivation as your mom or dad struggles to hold onto a job. Medical professionals will tell you there’s no doubt that both good and bad experiences such as these can impact the wiring of a child’s brain for life.

The early childhood programs spotlighted by the panelists offer crucial avenues to refuge for children who’ve been thrust into these situations. Voluntary home visiting by trained mentors and nurses gives at-risk parents useful and potentially life-saving advice on how to deal with stressful child-rearing situations and how to make their homes safe for kids.

A study of the Nurse-Family Partnership (NFP) program found that it cut the incidence of child abuse and neglect among participating families in half compared to families that didn’t participate. Many home visiting programs can connect parents with treatment providers as well.

High-quality child care and early education are also especially important for these children. Through programs such as Head Start, Early Head Start and state-based preschool, kids experience stable, and nurturing environments while building the social-emotional and academic skills they’re going to need in school.

These programs are also a respite for parents struggling to care for their kids as they work to recover from a substance use disorder. Many also have a two-generation impact by modeling healthy caregiver-child relationships and referring parents to treatment.

While millions of kids benefit from these nurturing environments, they’re also building crucial academic skills. That’s the key message in a report that was released by the panel, which profiled early care and education programs in Maine, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Michigan where participating children had higher reading and math test scores, were held back in school less often, and were more likely to graduate from high school.

The panelists also relayed some good news about lawmaker efforts to protect children from this crisis. In February, Congress passed 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. That bill also included a $5.8 billion commitment to the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG), which helps millions of working families afford child care. Congress has also — on a bipartisan basis — protected funding for Head Start and Preschool Development Grants, which provide access to early education for millions of kids.

Unfortunately, the need for these programs is going to intensify. Every 25 minutes a child is born suffering from Neonatal Opioid Withdrawal Syndrome, which happens when babies are exposed to opioids in the womb. The symptoms — ranging from tremors to seizures to uncontrollable crying — are heartbreaking, and affected children can often require extensive care to recover.

Even then, many kids will struggle to overcome developmental setbacks. While the epidemic’s persistence will compel lawmakers to support prevention and treatment options, they also need to focus on policies that give these kids a fighting chance to overcome the challenges they’re facing during the most crucial early years of their lives.

Mary Bono served as the U.S. Representative for the 45th District of California from 1998 to 2003. She is now a principal at Faegre Baker Daniels Consulting, a member of the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission, co-founder of the Collaborative for Effective Prescription Opioid Policies, and a senior advisor to Council for a Strong America.


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