Caseman, Marino: Hard truths about W.Va. youth in crisis (Opinion)

  • By Kelli Caseman and Laure Marino
  • Oct 16, 2019

Some hard truths have emerged, thanks to the opioid epidemic. One is that some of West Virginia’s children will be introduced to the culture of drug addiction, and they’ll never climb out of it. We lack the priorities and resources to help them. Our systems are bursting at the seams. Kids will keep falling through the cracks.

Sadly, parental drug use has created a crisis in child health. Never before in the history of our state have our children been so profoundly harmed and traumatized seeing their parents impaired, arrested and even dying right before their eyes. Our children are hungry, alone and struggling. The likelihood that they will use or abuse drugs is very high, so too do these adversities increase the risk of long term health problems like heart disease, stroke and cancer. Our children need access to comprehensive primary and mental health care, yet the health care system has been slow to respond to the growing need for services, referral to services, and connections between health care, public education and social supports.

Statistics in the news tell a dark story: According to the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, there are over 7,000 kids in foster care in our state, over 10,000 of West Virginia’s public school students are homeless, and in 2018, 482 kids in state custody ran away — some of them, more than once. Since 2013, there has been a 67 percent increase in the number of children in state custody, compared to an 11 percent increase nationally.

This is a hard truth: Every morning in our state, there are children who wake themselves up for school, dress themselves, fix their own breakfast when there’s food in the house and even tend to younger siblings, because they are their own caregivers. For these children, school is a safe place where they get attention, and oftentimes love, warmth and the compassion of a teacher, nurse, bus driver or cook who, without a word, realizes that this student is in crisis.

What we don’t see in the news is the promise of Superman or the cavalry coming to save them. These children are, whether we like it or not, our responsibility. We’re their community, and the hard truth is that, no matter how complex this situation is, these children’s lives won’t improve until we all recognize that we play a part in fixing the problem.

It’s a hard truth that when we talk about the epidemic, we don’t even talk about kids, even though they’re in the midst of the whole thing. Maybe we don’t want to admit it, but kids see, feel and remember. Not only do they suffer the very obvious pain of losing family members to overdose or incarceration, they suffer through things like bullying in school and on social media. Like it or not, children do see the cruel remarks that others post about their folks and on addiction on Facebook. They know all too well that many of us adults know they’re suffering, but rather than lean into the situation, we prefer to look away. It’s easier.

What happens to young minds constantly in crisis and awash in stress hormones? They actually experience a shift, a change in the way their brain grows, which changes how their brains develop and the way they behave. One of the smartest things we can do to help children is ensure they have access to health services — meaningful access that doesn’t rely on their parents or guardians to take them. A nurse in every school, a nurse in the school every day, mental health therapists in the school — these are real solutions to children in need of care.

Addiction is a disease; nobody knows this better than the kids living in the middle of it. Their parents almost always love them and rest assured, children love their parents. What good does it do to wag our fingers, look down our noses and publicly shame their parent for their perceived moral failings? Has this behavior ever helped someone out of the clutches of addiction? Do we think publicly shaming their parents makes these kids’ lives any better? Of course not.

As a community, we should have the capacity to care for both the parents and the children. For many, these adults were once the kids with parents suffering from substance use disorder. We should acknowledge that our lack of compassion for them perpetuates the cycle.

For these kids, we can’t keep looking away. Kids can’t navigate the long, tedious paths of our current health care system. We must re-imagine a viable system that incentivizes more pediatric providers to serve rural communities and looks beyond the clinic walls — like addressing internet connectivity issues to better utilize telehealth and public transportation. Changes won’t come to the health care system if we don’t take a whole community approach.

The last of our hard truths: We’ve lost our sense of community. But the good news is, we can get it back. Before the 2020 legislative session begins, let’s focus on optimal strategies to improving our health care delivery system for kids that don’t involve placing responsibilities solely in the hands of parents or guardians who, at least for now, aren’t there. Let’s not look away any longer. Without blame, or judgement, let’s take an honest look at how we can help them.