The smallest victims of Indiana’s growing drug-abuse problem should provide the biggest push to fix it. Child abuse and neglect cases increasingly reveal a connection to homes where drugs or alcohol are abused.
"Our child abuse and neglect cases have increased as they have across the state," said Judge Charles Pratt of the Allen Superior Court Family Relations Division. "There is clearly a rise in the number of cases within the category of neglect that are related to the parent’s drug use."
New data from Kids Count in Indiana show 13.4 percent of children were found to be living with a parent who abused drugs or alcohol. It also places the state fifth highest in the nation for first-time victims of child abuse or neglect reported in the past year.
Pratt, who handles children-in-need-of-services cases, commonly known as CHINS cases, sees firsthand the effects of drugs on children whose parents are abusing substances.
"Heroin use has become a significant and deadly problem," he wrote in an email. "In the last several months we have had cases in which one of the parents have died from an overdose. I can’t recall a time when we have seen such a tragic turn of events in the cases we monitor."
Pratt said many of the parents in his courtroom don’t accept the effects of their substance abuse on their children.
"They cling to perceptions that are reinforced in our culture and in some treatment communities that drug use – even heroin use – can be managed. Thus, they are resistant to many interventions designed to achieve sobriety and abstinence – especially those that incorporate strict and measurable accountability."
Both Pratt and Rachel Tobin-Smith, director of SCAN, the region’s child abuse and neglect prevention agency, noted substance abuse can itself be a symptom.
"Many people who have struggled with being victims of abuse and neglect end up using substances as adults as a self-medication against the horror they have endured," Tobin-Smith wrote in an email. "With the inexpensive price tag on these drugs it makes it a much more readily accessible coping mechanism."
Both court-ordered programs and the services offered by SCAN through Healthy Families, home visits and more, are effective ways to address those problems, although Tobin-Smith notes that more resources are needed for substance abuse treatment.
Top state officials, fortunately, have recognized that preventing drug and alcohol abuse is a key to preventing child abuse and neglect. Mary Beth Bonaventura, director of the Department of Child Services, told fellow members of the Indiana Commission on Improving the Status of Children last week that the commission’s discussions led to her agency’s changing its drug-testing procedures. Instead of leaving the task to 300 different providers, the DCS standardized the test.
With about 30,000 urine screens completed, Bonaventura said the state has its first-ever data.
"We know the No. 1 drug used by our families is alcohol, No. 2 is opiates, No. 3 is marijuana and No. 4 is benzodiazepines – and a lot of them are doing that all together," Bonaventura said. "A year from now it’s going to be even better – we’re going to be able to tell you where it’s happening; how many it’s happening to. ... All of that helps us identify where the gaps in the services are and what kinds of services we need to keep families together and get them back to where they need to be."