Sometimes unwelcome news comes at the most unexpected moments. I was shocked and saddened recently to learn that Andre, a man I and others had worked with in my former role as a director of the Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children (CASA) program, had died from an overdose – leaving his son, who he fought hard to regain custody of from foster care, without a father. Sadly, this story is now one that spans three generations of addiction, neglect and loss.
The news came at a particularly poignant moment – while on vacation at the beach, surrounded by family and friends, a glance at my phone and a Facebook message from a former colleague bringing the reality (and sometimes fatality) of addiction right back to me.
According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) performed by the Federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, more than eight million children live with parents who are either substance-dependent or addicted. Not all of these children end up in foster care or adopted, but many do. Those of us in the field, parents and professionals alike, know that substance abuse is often the primary cause of child neglect that leads to children in foster care or the termination of parental rights.
We also know, though all too few in our system express it, that there is a tension in our system between the time parents need to successfully overcome their addiction and the need for children to have permanency and stability as soon as possible. Recovery takes time and often involves relapse. Over and over again while working in the family court system, this conflict plays out. Most often, someone – either the parent, the child or both – loses.
So what can we, as foster parents, relatives, adoptive parents and professionals do? We need to walk toward the problem, not away from it. Addiction is scary. So many of us do not understand it. We’re frightened of it because, while we know it is a disease, it is not a cancer that can be excised or a bad tooth that can be pulled. We see how people fall down the rabbit hole. It can be hard to maintain boundaries when dealing with an illness that seems to have none. Most of all, we do not want the children we love and care for to be harmed by something so wily.
How do we walk toward the problem? Educate ourselves. There are many good resources online and elsewhere about the realities and treatment of addiction. Call and speak with one of on the Coalition’s HelpLine. Step into the parent’s shoes. Organizations such as Rise offer excellent first-person accounts of parents who have struggled with and overcome addiction to regain custody of their children. Visit www.risemagazine.org and search on “addict.” Several articles are there for the reading. Embrace shared parenting – working in partnership with the parent to the extent possible in your specific situation.
Yes, shared parenting is harder in the moment and in the short term. Addiction and recovery are messy. No one knows the end result going in. Maybe the parent of the child you love will be able to overcome, get on their feet and parent their child. Maybe they never will. Either way, you will have offered your support, come to know and understand the child’s parent, facilitated a connection between the child and parent and shown to the child you love a powerful example of reaching out and empathy.
My hope is that this is what happened for Andre’s son. I hope he saw the adults around him working together to support his father, to know his father and to be there as a resource for him now that his father cannot. In years to come, when Andre’s son and others may denigrate his father, I hope someone can offer Andre’s son balance and speak from firsthand experience about the good in Andre. He will need to know that good is in him too.