How to help a child whose parents overdose

A Pennsylvania child discovered her parents unresponsive and went off to school for help. New programs are being set up to support children who witness their parents overdose.

Ann Hermes/ The Christian Science Monitor/ File
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.

On Monday, a 7-year-old girl in McKeesport, Penn., got herself ready in the morning as usual, went to school, and told authorities that she hadn’t been able to wake her parents up for a few days.

The police visited her home, and found her parents dead of suspected drug overdoses. Left in the house were the girls’ siblings, a 9-month-old girl, 3-year-old boy and a 5-year-old boy, who were taken to the hospital for evaluations.

As opioid addictions have risen in the United States, children are increasingly becoming the victims of the epidemic as they witness their parents overdose or die. Often they may not understand what's happening – and like the case of the 7-year-old girl, go about their normal lives trying to figure out what's wrong.

"That's like the hardest thing because that's a 7-year-old," Courtney Lally, the girl’s aunt, told WPXI News. "That's a 7-year-old that did that."

The implications are consequential: These children may face separation from their homes and families, and some research has shown that growing up in a household with drug use increases the risk that the child will utilize drugs in the future as well.

As the US wrestles with the opioid crisis, strategies to address the problem are increasingly taking into account the wellbeing of the children.

"When you see your parent overdose it's going to be a trauma," Massachusetts Middlesex County District Attorney Marian Ryan told The Christian Science Monitor in September. "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."

In March, Ms. Ryan created a program called Project C.A.R.E. in her county that provides immediate help for these children. When a first responder identifies a child is present in a drug overdose case, he/she notifies a 24/7 on-call clinical supervisor who files a report with the Department of Children and Families and contacts the child’s guardian.

Another program in Connecticut called The Village provides in-house treatment for addicted parents that help them stay connected with their children instead of a state-mandated separation.

"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, told The Christian Science Monitor.

Some other existing programs seek to identify at-risk parents before a tragedy occurs and to reduce the time a child spends in foster care. A few of these organizations testified in a May congressional hearing by a House Ways and Means subcommittee that examined existing efforts.

The trigger for some programs may have come from data that shows many victims in their 30s to be parents of young children as well as anecdotes from first responders' who are increasingly encountering children on the scene of drug overdoses.

In a similar case in September, a 7-year-old girl whose parents were overdosed asked a police officer on the scene calmly if the officer could sign her homework so she could turn it in the next day, as reported by The Washington Post. The officer had to explain to her that she probably wouldn’t be going to school the next day, and that she would probably be moved somewhere else. In such cases, the children typically are taken to family court and put in custody of the Child Protective Services.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, opioids, which includes heroin and prescription opioid pain relievers such as morphine, have killed more than 28,000 Americans in 2014, more than any year on record. Currently, an estimated 78 Americans die each day from an opioid overdose.

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