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Opioid crisis: Helping children who see their parents overdose

As the opioid epidemic continues, more children are witnessing their parents or loved ones overdose. Many programs are working to help children move past the traumatic experience in order to lead productive lives.

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    Newburyport Police Marshal, Thomas Howard stands next to the police station's prescription drug depository on February 25, 2014 in Newburyport, Massachusetts. The police station installed the drop box four years ago. City officials in Newburyport have been combating heroin use and prescription drug abuse as the state of Massachusetts reports 185 heroin deaths in the past four months.
    Ann Hermes/ The Christian Science Monitor/ File
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A new video uploaded Friday shows another case of a child standing helplessly by an adult unconscious from a drug overdose.

The scene, filmed by an onlooker in a supermarket, is the most recent public example of children who witness their parents' overdose. Earlier this month, the Ohio police department shared a graphic photo of a 4-year-old in a car with two overdosed adults sprawled out in the front seats, hoping to make a very public statement about the dangers of the continuing opioid overdose epidemic throughout the United States and its unintended consequences on children.

As Congress attempts to address the crisis through prevention and treatment programs for adults, others – nonprofits, emergency responders, county districts, and foster care organizations – work to create programs that focus on the well-being of children swept up in the chaos.

"These are hardly isolated episodes," Massachusetts Middlesex County district attorney Marian Ryan says about the recent video and picture, during a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor. "At least these are happening out in the public so people see the kid. We have lots of situations where there are multiple children in the house."

In May, the Christian Science Monitor's Stacy Teicher Khadaroo reported on a similar case in New Hampshire – and the disturbing trend of children becoming immune to such scenes in these families:

“For many children around the United States, it is not a situation that is left to the imagination. They are members of Generation Heroin – youths who have grown up among epidemic use of opioids in some corners of America and have seen their own drug overdose rates more than triple in 17 states since 2001.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that the US is "in the midst of an opioid overdose epidemic." Opioids – including heroin and fentanyl – are painkillers that can be incredibly addictive. Since 1999, the number of opioid-overdose deaths has nearly quadrupled, according to the CDC, with 78 Americans succumbing daily to opioid overdoses.

Lowell, Mass., for example, saw a 180 percent increase in opioid overdose deaths between 2014 and 2015, with the median age of the overdose victim around 35, an age where individuals are often parents to young children.

Ms. Ryan says those figures spurred her into action. In collaboration with the Lowell Police Department and Mental Health Association of Greater Lowell, she helped to launch Project C.A.R.E. in March to directly reach out to the children of drug addicts to ensure their psychological well-being.

Here's how it works: If first responders to an incident identify that a child witnessed a drug overdose or near-death of a family member or loved one, they will notify an 24/7 on-call clinical supervisor at the Mental Health Association of Greater Lowell and file a report with the Department of Children and Families. The clinical supervisor will reach out to the child's guardian and provide therapy as needed.

Ryan says she really felt the need for the program after hearing about an incident where a 7-year-old girl found her mother in the bathroom, unconscious. The mother died from overdose that day – but the girl went to school as if nothing had happened.

"When you see your parent overdose it's going to be a trauma," Ryan says. "And you know that for these kids, living in a house where drug use is normalized, when they're also struggling with their own lives it's not hard to predict a teenager would self-medicate."

Ryan’s worries are not unfounded: Some studies have shown that children who grow up with parents who have substance-abuse disorder have an increased risk of developing the addiction themselves and are more likely to suffer from emotional or behavioral problems. According to many state officials, substance abuse is the major reason why children are put in foster care – a number that has been increasing since 2013.

Many other programs exist across the country that provide treatment to parents with substance-abuse problems, without separating them from their children or landing the child in foster care. A few representatives of these programs were called to testify at a May hearing by a House Ways and Means subcommittee that examined existing efforts.

One of the highlighted programs was The Village, a Connecticut agency implementing Family-Based Recovery, a model that provides in-house treatment for addicted parents and therapy sessions that help the parent connect with his or her children.

"It's a treatment for parents and prevention program for the children," Karen Hanson, an assistant clinical professor at Yale University who was involved with designing the model, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. "When the child is very young, we know a secure attachment sets the child up for a successful life.... [The therapy program helps parents] explore who their child is and how critical they are in their infant's lives. Being able to parent that child is a positive reinforcement for recovery."

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