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A View of the Epidemic: Helping Stressed Families

  • Sarah Rose, a developmental educator at the Springfield Area Parent Child Center, visits the home of Kristina Lawrence in Springfield, Vt., on Oct. 24, 2017. Rose has been working with Corey Greenleaf Jr., Lawrence's 1 1/2 year-old son. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Sarah Rose, a developmental educator at the Springfield Area Parent Child Center, visits the home of Corey Greenleaf, right, in Springfield, Vt., on Oct. 24, 2017. Tony Lawrence, Greenleaf's father-in-law lives in the home. Greenleaf's son Corey Greenleaf Jr., is 1 1/2 years old. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, November 04, 2017

It’s not just families who are coping with the consequences of the opioid epidemic, although they undoubtedly are paying the highest personal price. Many others encounter the crisis in the course of their work – physicians, child welfare workers, police officers and prosecutors, to name a few. Once a month for the coming year or so, the Valley News will focus on some of those people to get their perspective on the crisis and how it has changed both their work and their understanding of the epidemic.

Springfield —  On the first day she met him, Sarah Rose was worried about the little boy.

Her job was to help children, and in her years of visiting homes in crisis, Rose had learned that what children need most is a parent to care for them.

“They have the most impact on a child’s life, especially in the first five years,” Rose said, sitting at a picnic bench outside the Springfield Area Parent Child Center, the nonprofit where she works, while recalling her experience. “If you don’t have a healthy parent, you’re not going to have a healthy child.”

Over the past several years, Rose and child welfare workers throughout the region have watched, horrified, as opiate addictions have exploded through their caseloads, tearing apart one family after another, depriving more and more children of parents who care for them.

Rose spends much of her time conducting one-hour weekly visits with a rotating cast of about 10 families with children under the age of 5. She refers to them as home visits, but when a family’s rent money goes to feed an addiction, sometimes the result is that there is no longer a home to visit. In those cases, she might meet the family in a park, or a Dunkin’ Donuts.

“When you see those babies that never cry, that’s concerning,” she said. “Because babies are supposed to cry. So you know that that baby’s learned real quick that there’s no use to crying. Nobody’s coming.”

Confidentiality policies prevented Rose from naming the little boy; she couldn’t say much about him, or where in their coverage area, which includes parts of Windsor and Windham counties, he was from. He might have been a 3-year-old sandy-haired Lego enthusiast, or a 5-year-old with dark curls who loved fishing the Black River. One detail Rose did mention was that he liked drawing pictures. And that his mother — who seemed aggressive and foul-mouthed during Rose’s first visit— was in the throes of addiction. 

“The first day I met her, she had ripped his drawing off her wall and said ‘don’t put stupid stuff like that on my wall,’ ” Rose recalled.

The mother, who had four children including the boy, showed many of the hallmarks of addiction. She had no patience for the older children, and didn’t want to touch the babies.

“She just had none of that attachment,” Rose said.

It’s the type of awful parenting that would draw a judgmental “tsk tsk” from many observers, but Rose, recognizing the signs of addiction, saw it as a weakness to be overcome, not a fault to be shamed.

“The positives of her children, the positives in herself. She didn’t see that,” Rose said.

After 11 years working in early intervention at the Springfield Area Parent Child Center, Rose is a blend of optimism and realism. The best thing about her job, she says, is that, sometimes, she makes a concrete difference in the life of a child.

“I love the families. ... I love the children learning a new skill. I love the parents realizing how amazing their children are, in that you know a lot of these families feel like they’re failures. And to see those parents begin to build confidence is just amazing,” she said.

But the job she loves has also given Rose a front row seat to the slow-motion wrecking ball of opiates.

“It’s unlike, I think, any other addiction,” she said. “When we were growing up, there was alcohol and pot and cocaine but this opiate addiction just seems to get a hold of people and they just can’t seem to shake it. … They lose their housing. They lose their children. They overdose.”

The Springfield Area Parent Child Center offers a wide range of services for all pregnant women and families with young children; their services are voluntary, but sometimes, DCF strongly recommends that a family come to get help from Rose and other staff, who teach everything from child care to speech development. 

Over just the past several years, opiates have changed the entire landscape of Rose’s job. The caseloads have increased, and the needs of each family have increased. Families with opiate addictions are more likely to be homeless, less likely to keep appointments, more likely to be jailed, and more likely to have untreated medical issues.

Though needs are skyrocketing — Rose says there have been 777 referrals in the past two years — funding, much of which comes from Medicaid and other federal programs, has stayed flat. Before opiates hit, the three hours a week she spent with some families didn’t seem like quite enough. Now, that amount of time seems like a luxury.

“Now, it’s like you just get one hour a week, and it’s just really hard to implement change with one hour a week, with all the issues people are dealing with,” she said.

Perhaps the biggest change Rose has seen has been the number of children removed from their families and put into foster care.

“Eight years ago, we might have one or two children who are in DCF custody,” Rose said, referring to Vermont’s Department of Children and Families. Rose said that sometimes, as a measure of last resort, a child she’s working with will be put into foster care for the short term, while the parent goes through a temporary crisis. But with opiate addiction now afflicting so many families, that last resort has become the new normal, and the crisis is often permanent. Rose estimates 50 percent of cases now involve children who are in foster care. 

“When you spend any time with those parents, you know they love their children but this addiction is just overpowering them,” she said.

When parents are addicted to opiates, it puts the state in a no-win situation. Leaving the child in the home, or taking the child from the home, are both losing situations.

“Removal from the home is very traumatic. Does it increase their chances of success? In some ways yes, but in some ways no, because they’ve got to be removed from their home and that’s very traumatizing for a child. I don’t think there’s any one simple answer.”

Child welfare agencies are also turning to new places for help in their mission. In response to the epidemic, the Springfield Area Parent Child Center has partnered with Turning Point Recovery Center, a nonprofit that helps people with substance abuse issues. Rose said she hopes more money will be found to support programs like Intensive Family Based Services, which, rather than breaking up families, puts child welfare workers into homes and communities. It’s expensive, but can be effective, Rose said.

Rose’s story about the boy didn’t end with his mother tearing his picture down from the wall. That was just the first visit of many. Rose spent years in the home, trying to convince the mother that there was another path forward.

At first, it was a roller coaster with more downs than ups.

“Things just got so bad,” she said. “She was sick all the time.”

But then, just when things seemed at their worst, something changed.

“I don’t know what in her mind made that turn,” said Rose, but whatever it was, the mother began valuing herself, and her children, enough to make a change. It took time, and amazing effort, but the mother’s own difficult upbringing had given her deep reserves of grit.

She got control over her addiction. 

Today, Rose said, the mother is clean and sober, and mingles with the other mothers at community bake sales. When her son with the drawing joined his school’s basketball team, his mother could be seen in the stands, loud and brash, cheering herself hoarse.

“She did all that work but I got to walk that journey with her,” Rose said. “I love to look at the success stories.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211