Stories written by Jo Ciavaglia, award-winning multimedia newspaper reporter at the Bucks County Courier Times in Bucks County, a suburb of Philadelphia, Pa.
For more information about Jo, check out her Linked-in profile, as well as her Facebook fan page, Instagram and Google+
Sunday, March 26, 2017
Rep. Katharine Watson's bill would create task force to address opioid impact on young children
Posted March 22, 2017
They are the youngest, most vulnerable — and often overlooked — victims of the nation’s opioid epidemic: the children of parents with substance abuse disorders.
State Rep. Katharine Watson, R-144, of Warrington wants her fellow state lawmakers to start paying closer attention to them.
Rep. Katharine Watson
“Infants and children are often the forgotten victims of this devastating epidemic and are driving the large majority,” Watson said. “Whether they are born addicted to opiates and require intense care in their first few weeks of life or are living in a home where parents are struggling with addiction, these children need our attention.”
On Wednesday, the House Children and Youth Committee, which Watson chairs, took a step toward focusing the spotlight on children growing up in families with addiction. It unanimously forwarded to the House floor a bill Watson drafted that calls for the creation of a statewide task force dedicated to improving the safety, well-being and family stability of substance-exposed infants and other young children adversely affected by parental substance abuse disorders. The full House could vote on House Bill 235 as soon as next month.
If created, the task force would identify strategies and make short- and long-term recommendations for prioritizing the prevention of prenatal substance abuse, improving outcomes for pregnant and parenting women seeking sobriety, and improving the lives of children at risk for abuse and neglect or in foster placement due to parental substance use. It would be modeled after the Task Force on Child Protection, which resulted in a series of recommendations and more than two dozen new laws that updated the state’s child abuse laws.
Task force members would include representatives from state agencies including health and human services, the court system, the medical and social service communities, and drug treatment and early intervention providers. The task force would draft a report that would be submitted later this year to the governor and Legislature, according to the bill.
Hospital nurses first brought concerns about the impact of the opioid and opiate addiction crisis to Watson's attention three years ago, Watson said. The nurses told Watson they were tired of putting newborns into cars with parents they feared were not emotionally or physically capable of caring for them because of substance abuse issues.
Child welfare advocates on Wednesday agreed that a task force focused on children of families struggling with addiction is needed. The opioid and opiate epidemic has infiltrated virtually every aspect of the lives of children, for some starting before birth, they said.
The number of U.S. babies diagnosed with neonatal abstinence syndrome admitted to neonatal intensive care units nearly quadrupled between 2004 and 2013, from seven to 27 per 1,000 admissions, according to a 2015 study in the New England Journal of Medicine. The condition is a collection of symptoms that appear in drug-dependent babies commonly associated with opiate and opioid withdrawal, such as seizures and tremors, inconsolable, high-pitched crying, vomiting and diarrhea.
The Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council, an independent agency that examines health care costs, analyzed birth data and found that 2,206 babies were diagnosed with the syndrome in fiscal year 2014-15, according to a council report released last year.
Parental substance abuse accounted for nearly 20 percent of the 45,543 total general protective service allegations in the state in 2015, more than any other allegation category, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. A general protective service referral is one that potentially impacts a child’s well-being but doesn’t meet the threshold for abuse or neglect under the state’s law.
More than three-quarters of those allegations involving parental substance abuse affected children under age 10, according to the state. Babies born affected by prenatal exposure to illegal drugs or with signs of drug withdrawal accounted for roughly one-third of the 2,128 general protective service allegations involving children under age 1.
For nearly two years, the Center for Children’s Justice, a nonprofit child advocacy group in Berks County, has pushed the Wolf administration and state Legislature for a task force focused on understanding the impact of the opioid and opiate crisis on children, said Cathleen Palm, the center’s founder and director.
“This is an area that Pennsylvania has been behind the curve,” Palm said. “This (bill) gives me hope (lawmakers) are moving these kids off the radar and into the spotlight.”
The Philadelphia child advocacy group, The Support Center for Child Advocates, has also long urged the governor and Legislature to study the opioid and opiate problem as it relates to children and their families.
Executive Director Frank Cervone hopes if the task force is created that it focuses on improving access to drug treatment before pregnancy happens, better identifying drug-exposed babies at risk for harm and supporting parents struggling with substance addiction.
“We need a better response than remove every kid from every one of those circumstances,” Cervone said.