Opioid Epidemic

Opioid Epidemic

Kentucky School Advocate
June 2017
By Madelynn Coldiron
Staff writer
In her 19th year of working with children and families at Hardin County Schools’ Lincoln Trail Elementary family resource center, Janelle Mason has seen “a real change” in abuse and neglect cases because of the opioid epidemic.

Earlier in her career, she often got positive results when reaching out to a family and educating parents who were neglecting their children. “But when drugs have taken over a person’s life, how do you fix it?” Mason said.

The addicted parents she works with “love their children dearly,” she said, but have no control over their addiction, which turns into neglect. “Severe neglect, because the parents are out of commission and the children are trying to keep things together themselves, and trying to get themselves up and their siblings to school. So it’s different from when I first started – it’s a different kind of abuse and neglect.”

Like Lincoln Trail, the state’s family resource and youth services centers have increased their support on several fronts in response to the opioid epidemic, said Melissa Goins, who heads the state Division of Family Resource and Youth Services Centers.

Working with school counselors, community agencies and volunteers, the FRYSCs are helping relatives, grandparents and great-grandparents who are raising the affected children, setting up support groups and connecting them with resources. Similarly, the centers have been organizing grief groups for children who have lost a parent, and for children with an incarcerated parent.

The need for these supports has increased with the ballooning opioid abuse, Goins said. “Kentucky has, we think, between 6,000 and 7,000 kids that are in relative care in addition to the about 8,000 kids that are in out-of-home care.”

“I’ve had several kids removed from their parents by (the Department for Community-Based Services) because of neglect and abuse, mainly caused by the drug use,” said Sallye Pence, coordinator of the family resource center at Jefferson County’s Kenwood Elementary School. “And I guess we recognized about four years ago that we had a large number of kids that attend our school whose parents either were or had been incarcerated.”

Pence said what she is seeing is being reflected statewide – for 18 of her 22 years as a family resource center coordinator, she served on the statewide FRYSC Coalition; she said her peers “particularly in eastern Kentucky” are trying to help children and families through this crisis.
The emotional toll on children
The situation has also driven up the need for mental health counseling for affected children, Goins said. “It’s been beneficial for everyone to try to do that at school,” she said.

McCreary County Middle School counselor Jeffrey Clark said out-of-home placement can be a difficult adjustment for children, whether they’re placed in foster care or with a relative. The affected kids may bring those feelings to school, lashing out in different ways, he said, such as defiance “or looking for something to control because they’ve not been able to control their own home life.”

Troy Brock, pupil personnel director for Paducah Independent Schools, said what the children in this situation see “is parents’ loss of a job or their complete inactivity – they’re unable to function in a normal day-to-day life. What happens there is a child’s resiliency kicks into gear and whether they’re able to cope with their parents’ drug use or not.”

Mental health professionals use “adverse childhood experiences” to describe a range of issues that can have lifelong effects on kids. “I think they are all folded into this problem – because you’ve got abuse, neglect, violence, drug abuse, incarcerated parents, divorce – all of those things could be connected to opioid abuse,” Goins said. “I think that any of those are going to have a profound effect on kids and youth. I think the key is how much resilience do they have? How many other people are they connected to?”

What more can be done?
FRYSCs try to connect children and families with resources; money might bring in more services, Goins said, but there are plenty of ways to help them by making connections that don’t carry a price tag.
Number of Kentucky children in foster care graphic
“I think if there was anything I could say we needed, I think it would be people to partner, people who would step up and say ‘We’re going to make this a priority in our school. We’re going to find out whose parents are incarcerated and respond to those kids in a different way. We’re going to train our teachers to recognize for trauma and mental health needs and we’re going to sit down and sketch out a pathway for referrals for those kids,’” Goins said.

Both Pence and Mason said they are grateful that their school boards, in fact, do provide their centers with additional funding beyond the state’s allocation. And a federal grant-funded program has been helping school districts train teachers and other personnel in recognizing mental health issues in youth, which Goins said “couldn’t have been more timely.”

Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, believes one way schools can support these kids is by helping them to understand addiction. “One of the things that is sometimes undervalued is if we believe that addiction is a disease and not a crime or a sin, but a disease, kids need to understand that. Because if we have hopes of (family) reunification, they have to understand what that mom and dad went through,” he said. “I know that’s a hard challenge to put in front of schools, but that’s No. 1.”

Brooks also looks at the big picture, noting that “The opioid epidemic fits a broader pattern of adverse experiences that more and more Kentucky kids are victims around,” including poverty, violence and incarcerated parents. School board members need to keep this in mind, he said.

“It’s so important that a school board member understand that you can’t separate an addiction issue from safety and from poverty and from myriad other social issues,” Brooks added.

Mason said she doesn’t know what kind of long-lasting effect the opioid crisis will have on children in these families, “and that’s what scares me.” Goins echoed that.

“I think that we don’t know the effects this problem is really going to have on this generation, and that’s the scary thing,” she said. “We have so many parents, so many grandparents that are not going to be around when these kids are going to need parents later on. And that’s the biggest thing for us: thinking 20 years down the road, what is this going to look like for these kids?”
Board view: The importance of listening and learning
Campbell County school board Chairwoman Janis Winbigler said she and members of her board became aware of the need for helping students affected by family drug abuse when school counselors and other personnel spoke up about it. It illustrates the process that board members use when tackling issues like this, she said.

“Ask a lot of questions of your school personnel; get to know your student body, get to know the needs that are not being met so the board can take steps to put positions in place to meet those needs,” said Winbigler, who works in the neighboring Bellevue Independent district as director of support services.
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