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Opinion | Early Intervention Helps Protect Our Kids from the Opioid Crisis

I’ve been honest about what opioid addiction has done to members of my own family. Since our troubles were described in a story in the Knoxville News Sentinel, I attended a White House summit on the topic. I’ve also shown my appreciation for Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan to address the epidemic here in Tennessee.

What I want to see more of, however, are policies that will protect children who are affected by opioid addiction. Every 25 minutes, a baby is born suffering from Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, which happens when babies are exposed to drugs, most often opioids, in the womb. I’ve seen the symptoms – which range from tremors to seizures to uncontrollable crying – firsthand while at the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at East Tennessee Children’s Hospital with my own grandchild.

David Huntley wants parents to know they are not alone in helping children who are using drugs. His son died at 19 following his drug use. Michael Patrick/Knoxville News Sentinel

Many other children are living in homes with teens and adults who are abusing opioids and/or other drugs. This puts them at greater risk for abuse and neglect, personal trauma from seeing a parent arrested and incarcerated, and poverty that often happens when parents are too hobbled by addiction to hold down a job. Physicians and child care experts refer to these as adverse childhood experiences.

In the short term, these ACES often bring intolerable stress that impairs development of children’s brains and immune systems. But they can also affect health and productivity throughout life. One study found kids who experienced more than four of these childhood traumas were three times more likely to abuse prescription pain relievers and five times more likely to inject drugs as adults.

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That’s a cycle those of us in law enforcement see too often: children who are affected by adverse experiences becoming more apt to abuse drugs as a result of those experiences.

The crisis is also tearing families apart. Nationwide, parental drug abuse was a precipitating factor for 34 percent of the cases in which children were put into foster care. That’s 92,000 kids. The Tennessee Alliance for Kids reports that since 2010 there has been a 51 percent increase in the number of parents whose parental rights have been terminated and also notes that opioid addiction is a factor. Right now, according to the organization, Tennessee has the second-highest rate of opioid prescriptions in the nation.

Charlie Daniel cartoons - April 2018

As noted, I’m grateful for Haslam’s $30 million plan to fight the opioid epidemic. Since about 80 percent of crime in Tennessee is connected in some way to drugs, there’s a lot at stake for everyone who cares about public safety. In the coming months, however, I’d like to see a greater focus at the federal and state level on policies and programs that specifically address the needs of children who are affected by the crisis.

Fortunately, Congress just reauthorized the Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program. This bipartisan initiative enables nurses and trained professionals to help young moms and dads become responsible parents. It prioritizes services for families living in poverty and those with a history of substance abuse. Home visiting programs can reduce the level of exposure for ACES and create more resilience in the children already exposed to them.

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A study of one program funded by MIECHV, the Nurse-Family Partnership, showed it reduced incidents of child abuse and neglect by half.

The House and Senate have also introduced opioid-specific legislation, with funding for programs that prevent addiction and that offer more treatment for pregnant and postpartum women and babies affected by NAS.

More: Cigna, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee reduce opioid prescriptions

Here in Tennessee, Haslam wisely led the effort to appropriate $1.25 million to address ACEs during the past two fiscal years, which will help us address the needs of more children through schools, doctors' offices, the courts and early childhood programs. As any preschool teacher will tell you, too many children are coming from homes where parents are abusing drugs. We already know from research that quality preschool experiences improve long-term academic success. They also offer safe, predictable and nurturing environments where kids can be free of the chaos they’re experiencing at home.

With all of this in mind I urge lawmakers to recognize the opioid crisis as a problem facing every generation. Beating addiction among adults will save lives and improve public safety right now. Supporting programs that prepare children to live drug-free lives will break the addiction cycle and lead us out of this crisis in the years to come.

David Rausch is the Knoxville chief of police.

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