Yes, talk about how to help people with addiction this week. But don’t forget their families

It’s fairly obvious from the several blog posts and articles I’ve written that the addiction epidemic here in Maine hits close to home for me, on personal and professional levels. For many Mainers, like me who are in the trenches on this one, it has seemed like the epidemic was never going to get the policy attention it warrants.

But that day has finally come — two days, actually. Sen. Angus King, along with Michael Botticelli, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, will convene a gathering of stakeholders in Brewer on Tuesday. Besides being the drug czar, Botticelli is open about being in recovery from his own severe substance abuse disorder. And Gov. Paul LePage’s more controversial summit focused primarily on law enforcement will convene Wednesday in Augusta.

Botticelli’s presence as a person in recovery gives me great hope for the kind of discussions that will happen in Brewer. I don’t have much faith in LePage, but I do have faith in our various law enforcement agencies who have been in the trenches on this one, as well. Sheriff Randall Liberty at Kennebec County Jail was innovating with his CARA program directed at addicts before the need for such innovations became commonly accepted.

All and all I am hopeful for the summits and grateful they are taking place. It’s a relief to hear so many different factions talking about the need for a comprehensive approach, balancing treatment and policing. One omission concerns me, though.

Makenzee Kennedy waits for her mother to come for a visit at Mount Washington Pediatric Hospital in Baltimore. The infant was undergoing an intensive program to wean her from the effects of her mother's heroin addiction. (Bill O'Leary | Washington Post)

Makenzee Kennedy waits for her mother to come for a visit at Mount Washington Pediatric Hospital in Baltimore. The infant was undergoing an intensive program to wean her from the effects of her mother’s heroin addiction. (Bill O’Leary | Washington Post)

Who is representing the children of people with addiction? Will the comprehensive plans that emerge from all the information gathering going on include how to help the children? Is anyone going to talk about how to support schools, community mental health providers, Child Protective Services staff, and relatives who are on the front lines in this unfortunate part of the epidemic?

Children don’t vote and aren’t able to call to complain when their parents are denied things like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families because of their drug use. Children can’t tell school administrators that they missed school because a parent didn’t wake up all day, and they didn’t have clean clothes or anyone to help with homework. Children can’t learn and can be disruptive when they witness the kinds of abuse and neglect that often coincides with addiction.

A few days ago I read about a courageous lawsuit being brought against the school district in Compton, California — yes, the movie Straight Out of Compton, Compton. The lawsuit asserts that children in Compton are experiencing regular trauma that disables their ability to learn and requests that the school district incorporate necessary programs and resources to support learning for them. The normal trajectory for students who struggle in these ways includes truancy and behavior problems that lead to suspensions and expulsions.

Other than the rampant gun violence, too many of Maine’s school children share the kind of abuse and neglect and parental incarceration experiences at the heart of the Compton lawsuit. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s true. And every time we ignore truancy issues and suspend and expel traumatized students rather than address their traumas, we are returning them, uneducated, to the very environments that disabled their learning process in the first place.

When it comes to addiction, there’s much for policymakers, law enforcement, mental health and addiction professionals, and elected officials to consider as they gather information and strategize. I pray the children, and not just the hundreds trapped in the foster care system, are at the top of the list.

The following is post I did in May.  It didn’t get a lot of views, but it’s one of my personal favorites. I wrote it specifically to our legislators when drug policy bills were being considered, but other than the first two lines, it works just as well for the pending drug summits.

Some drug-related bills are being heard.
Prior attempts left addicts undeterred.
The crisis is real; I hope it’s not terse,
To touch on this subject again in verse.
No one silver bullet can fell a deer
When shot from the edge of the woods in fear.

Please think about our loved ones’ hearts stopping,
Babies crying, snorting lines, pill popping,
Brilliant people in the throes of disease,
Robberies, needles, trauma histories,
Broken families, children neglected,
Dealers, crime, communities infected,
Treatment access, the addicted unborn,
And long overdue corrections reform.

Think of the monk’s words before two lives passed:
Wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast.
(Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet)

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.