Substance use is a growing concern in the United States. Devastated families of all kinds struggle to maintain a sense of boundary and support, and feel powerless in helping their loved ones overcome their addictions. Often overlooked in the national conversation, and in the local treatment programs, though, are the most vulnerable subset of those affected by these sensitive situations. According to data from the 2009 to 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 1 in 8 children lived in homes with at least one parent dependent on alcohol or drugs.

There is a strong relationship between parental substance use disorder and child maltreatment. Frequently, drugs and alcohol inhibit a parent’s ability to effectively function in a parental role. These parents experience a decreased capacity to read and respond to their child’s needs and cues, have difficulty regulating their emotions, and, accordingly, face a disruption in healthy parent-child attachment building. Substance abuse by a parent often leads to neglect.

Children in this environment are at a higher risk of developing cognitive, emotional and behavioral disorders which further compounds the stress to the household. According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, these children are also subject to higher rates of emotional, physical and sexual violence, substance use issues, housing instability, poverty and physical health issues.

In 2014, approximately 47 states had child protection laws that addressed parental substance use. Colorado, a state which is still experiencing a rise in drug use according to the Center For Disease Control and Prevention, has passed numerous bills focused on providing support for families and individuals struggling with substance use disorder, and protecting the children who suffer the consequences. Over the years, Kempe has worked alongside government agencies and committees dedicated to the prevention, treatment, recovery and harm reduction of Colorado’s opioid crisis.

This summer and fall, the Colorado legislature’s Opioid and Other Substance Use Disorders Study Committee met to continue this work. Kempe engaged with the committee, closely monitoring and providing feedback on their legislative proposals. In September, Dr. Kathi Wells of The Kempe Center participated on a panel before the committee talking about families affected by substance use disorder along with representatives from Douglas County Human Services and Illuminate Colorado. Dr. Wells was able to speak about the policy evolution as it relates to supporting families affected by substance use disorder and uplifted the creation of the CARENetwork as a critical piece of the puzzle as communities decide how to tackle these challenges..

Additionally, on October 29th, the Opioid and Other Substance Use Disorders Study Committee approved several bills including the recovery bill, which contains a provision to change procedures when a baby tests positive for substances at birth, as well as a provision modifying the determination of child abuse, neglect or dependency in situations involving substance use exposure. Again, Kempe had a seat at the table, providing detailed feedback on the bill’s language.

We will continue our advocacy and involvement in this area because we know the cycle of substance use disorder is generational. Many people who struggle with substance abuse share reports of traumatic histories. Because children of parents with psychological illness receive statistically less health treatment than those with healthy parents, they are often unable to get the help they need to stop the cycle. While there are many agencies in Colorado utilizing court rooms and committee meetings to decrease and prevent substance use disorder, the most effective work will always happen within our families and in our homes.

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