Enough grappling in the dark, drug epidemic plan needed
No one in the village has seen an elephant before. One by one, villagers go in and touch a different part of the elephant. They come out with very different ideas of what an elephant is. One who touches a leg thinks it’s a trunk. One who touches a tusk thinks it’s a spear. And so on.
The moral of the parable is that, sometimes, our own perspectives can be myopic. By connecting our experiences together, we can see the bigger picture. As Rumi puts it, “If each of us held a candle there, and if we went in together, we could see it.”
At a town hall in Charleston, an elementary school principal told us that she sees an increasing number of kids entering school who are nonverbal, aren’t potty trained and are more violent. She said that, as long as the drug epidemic continues, she knows the number of these kids will increase, and their school lacks the resources and staff to help them. She’s not only worried for her kids, but also for her staff. She fears that the stress and frustration — and the students’ challenging behaviors — will make her teachers leave.
From the courts, we’ve heard that the system is overburdened. In Athens, Judge Mary Ellen Griffith told the story of a 13-year-old in her courtroom who had been put in over 50 different residential and foster care placements.
The judge said the girl shouted in her courtroom: “I just want to be a normal kid! I don’t want to be a court kid!” West Virginia has the highest percentage of kids removed from their homes in the country. According to the DHHR, approximately 83 percent of those removals are drug related, often ending up in court.
As a health care advocate, I’ve heard many stories about kids with lost medical records, untreated trauma, the formation of suicidal thoughts at younger ages and how difficult it is to find the mental health care services that they need — particularly in the more rural parts of our state. I’m often told that we need to do more to address stigma — that the general public doesn’t understand the nature of addiction, and that blaming parents won’t do anything to help their children.
I also hear from providers who are angry at Child Protective Services for not answering their calls and removing kids when they report signs of abuse or neglect. I once had a pediatrician tell me we should start arresting CPS workers for medical neglect.
I’ve spoken to staffers from Child Protective Services. They had a great deal of compassion and empathy for the families they work with. They say more resources and services upstream — before families reach a crisis point — would make a big difference in the number of children removed from their homes. But they also admitted that they are overwhelmed, overworked and undervalued.
And then there’s those family members who take in their grandkids, nieces, nephews, etc. We’re fourth in the country for the number of grandparents raising grandchildren. A friend of mine is a grandmother who adopted two of her grandkids. Over lunch the other day, I asked her how things were going. She said, “If the smallest twig breaks, it will all come crashing down.”
Currently, there’s no state program or organization to help grandparents navigate systems or inform them what services or funding they qualify for. Most are grappling around in the dark, trying to figure out how they will afford it all, and what will happen to the children when they die.
To do this, we have to look beyond our perspective — our system, our ideology and, perhaps, our politics.
We need a plan.
We’ve had state plans to address diabetes, asthma, cancer and even physical activity, but we haven’t taken a single step to bring all of these affected systems together — health care, public education, child welfare, foster/kinship care and juvenile justice — to strategically address the needs of the kids of the drug epidemic
Let’s make sure this year’s legislative session includes a focus on the need to see the bigger picture and address this urgent crisis in a comprehensive way. Let’s create a multi-year, multi-sector plan and reform these systems before the drug epidemic escalates. It’s going to take a lot of time, work and collaboration, but our kids deserve nothing less.