The week of February 12th marks Children of Alcoholics Awareness week, a campaign led by The National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACoA) to raise awareness of children affected by parental alcohol problems.
The effect to an individual of addiction (especially heroin recently) as highlighted in news reports almost everywhere is devastating. Equally as devastating and far-reaching are the effects upon the family members of a person addicted to substances. We know this, but it also has an effect upon the surrounding communities as a whole.
As the Allegany County Department of Social Services serves persons from birth to death, we are in a unique position to see these effects on a wide scale. In our eligibility department, we have an in-house drug/alcohol counselor as well as an in-house RN. In 2015 (2016 numbers are not quite compiled yet), we performed 500 assessments and made referrals to outpatient services (124), inpatient services (23), residential (15), Mental health & drug addiction outpatient (28), and court mandated (24). As of November 2016, we were on par for receiving 588 such assessments; about an 18% increase. That’s a big drain on a family whose potential income providers are not able to contribute to the family. That doesn’t even touch upon the emotional drains.
In child protective, 26% of our cases allege drug and/or alcohol abuse (about 147 a year). Children of Alcoholics (COA) are more likely than others to have emotional, psychological, or physical problems related to their childhood. Many develop an alcohol problem and/or other addictive habits, and/or marry someone with an alcohol problem or some other type of addiction.
COAs often learn special rules and roles, which include attempting to protect the family image, keeping feelings to themselves, not trusting others, assuming parental responsibilities, excelling at school, trying to make others feel better, adapting to situations in a detached fashion, or using negative behavior to attract attention. In general, COAs have higher rates of stress-related illnesses and conditions, including ulcers, depression, fatigue, headaches, insomnia, tension, anxiety, and eating disorders.
Drug and/or alcohol abuse allegations often lead to other allegations such as domestic violence or sexual abuse. We have had babies born addicted because of their mother’s addictions; these cases are very hard to even see as a worker or family member due to the withdrawal symptoms these poor children have to bear. Many of our foster care placements are the result of addiction issues. Some are able to go to relative foster care; which effects the children, as well as extended families of abusers. This changes the family dynamics considerably. Incarceration of these abusers often happens, leaving a void in the child’s life. In 2015, we had 41 admissions to foster care and 13 adoptions (frequently due to drug and alcohol issues).
Our preventive case referrals frequently are for drug and alcohol issues and the department not only has caseworkers who assist in these homes, but we also contract with provider agencies to deliver services both in home and in schools. Twenty-two percent of our cases carry a caregiver risk for drug and alcohol issues. In child welfare, this can carry a cost of about $300,000 a month to deliver services for these issues; a cost that many of us contribute to in our tax base.
This doesn’t even consider the cost to our adult population. We have had a 54% increase in 2015 for adult protective calls; many of which involve drug and alcohol issues. An adult child of an alcoholic may have trouble expressing feelings, can’t seem to relax, are loyal to others beyond reason, are overly responsible, fear losing control, fear being abandoned, are overly self-critical, and have difficulty with relationships. These calls can result in self-neglect, lack of work, homelessness and housing issues, lack of follow through with medical care, the need for financial management, and elder abuse by relatives who have these issues which results in financial exploitation, physical, and emotional abuse. These costs are very difficult to measure.
The biggest cost, in my opinion, is the cost of these traumas on individuals, children, families, workers, and communities. It is a cost to all of us, whether a primary or secondary trauma. As trauma incidences increase, so does the risk for negative health outcomes for us all. This cost affects us emotionally, physically, relationally, and financially.
The positive news is that help is available, and COAs can be helped even when their parent continues to drink. It is important that COAs recognize the special risks they face, understand how past experiences may be affecting their lives, and get the kind of help that is best for them.
We cannot look the other way; it is an issue for all of us. Get involved and be a part of the solution in whatever way that you can. We need one another.