Children of Addiction: A Single Bullet Point in the Opioid Crisis

Dani DiPirro , NACoA Communications Specialist

Last week you might have seen this video of a mother attempting to inject heroin while her 4-year-old son stood nearby. As the drug and opioid epidemic sweeps across the nation, heartbreaking images like this are appearing with unfortunate regularity, sprinkled with stories about the extraordinary generosity of people, often grandparents,  reaching out to foster some of the children whose parents have been captured by opioid addiction, an insidious brain-base disorder. Whether drug misuse happens in a back alley in Cincinnati, OH, as seen in this video, or on the marble counter tops of an estate in the Hamptons, children across the country are living in homes where parental addiction is present — an undeniable reality often ignored when the impact of addiction is presented in the media and in purportedly comprehensive government reports and commissions.

Every day addiction is referenced in the news. This escalating opioid epidemic inspired the creation of the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis earlier this year, and  Commission’s overview report released last week shows still that little is being done to address the impact the crisis is having on some of society’s most vulnerable citizens: the children.

Though the latest interim report from the Commission is filled with suggestions that many have been advocating for years (such as expanding capacity for drug treatment under Medicaid; increasing the use of medication-assisted treatments for opioid disorders; encouraging the development of non-opioid pain relievers; and others) —  all important parts of the solution — the report is missing any guidance on how help the children being harmed by parental addiction.

Among other goals, the Commission has been tasked with identifying and reporting on best practices for addiction prevention and reviewing the literature evaluating the effectiveness of educational messages for youth and adults with respect to prescription and illicit opioids. Yet the report references children just once — a single bullet point in the middle of a long list of addiction-prevention tasks:

  • Evidence-based prevention programs for schools, and tools for teachers and parents to enhance youth knowledge of the dangers of drug use, as well as early intervention strategies for children with environmental and individual risk factors (trauma, foster care, adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), and developmental disorders) (Interim Report, page 9)

If the Commission looks to what has worked comprehensively in schools in the past, it will come across Student Assistance Programs that have helped hundreds of thousands of children and youth who were troubled or in trouble for over 30 years. These programs are one of the key reasons drug use among children and youth dropped so dramatically in the 1980s, and  Jessica Nichols, CEO of Addiction Policy Forum, advised the Commission during its first meeting to look that these programs as powerful tools for prevention.

Across the country, more and more people are becoming aware of severity of the opioid crisis. Governor Chris Christie said last week, “We have 142 people a day in this country dying of drug overdose. That means every three weeks we have a loss equal to the loss we had on 9/11. This is a national emergency.” What he didn’t say is that many of those who are overdosing — or simply misusing substances — are parents, many of whom are leaving behind or failing to properly care for their children.

The intense focus on substance abuse disorders is understandable and important, but we do ourselves great harm as a nation to ignore children impacted by addiction. The exposure of children to alcohol and drug misuse can create a lifetime of health, legal, social, and economic problems (and this isn’t even accounting for the potential mental and emotional damage that might occur if a parent overdoses or a child is removed from his or her home), all of which impact our society as a whole.  As stories unfold, we also see that too many of these young parents trapped in the grip of addiction are, in fact, yesterday’s children who never got the help they needed.

Even if we can eradicate the opioid epidemic, if we don’t address the needs of the children — all of whom are at high risk for drug and alcohol disorders themselves — the adverse impacts will continue to occur generation after generation. Resources are limited in the fight against addiction, yes, but this is not an area we, as a society, can ignore. The ripple effects are far too large — and too serious — not to address, right now, the needs of the children of addiction, including prevention programs targeted to them.

The Commission’s interim report is a wonderful start , but if we fail to include proven prevention practices for the impacted children and families such as Celebrating Families!  for whole family healing and SAMHSA’s Children’s Program Kit — we will fail to stop this and future drug epidemics and we will pay in lifelong mental and physical health problems and continue the family transmission of this vicious brain disease, long after overdose rates have slowed.

The Commission’s report is a draft, with the final version expected to be released in the fall, which means there is still time to speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves.

Any member of the public can submit written comments for the Commission’s consideration via email at commission@ondcp.eop.gov. (Note: ONDCP may post such written comments publicly on its website, including names and contact information that are submitted.) Take action, send an email, and let the Commission know that children of addiction need the report’s single bullet point to expand exponentially to include the kind of help, like Student Assistance Programs, that can make the most difference for the most at-risk children — both for the sake of each impacted and the sake of our nation’s future.


Dani DiPirro assists as a communications specialist at NACoA. She is the founder of PositivelyPresent.com