In households across our state, families are struggling with many of the same issues: relationship problems, miscommunication, financial hardships and life’s unexpected surprises. For some, included in the list of challenges is living with drug or alcohol abuse. While adults can, at the very least, intellectualize the reality of substance abuse and addiction (or pretend it doesn’t exist), a child doesn’t have that skillset. This article is meant to shed some light on the unspoken victims of Arizona drug abuse – the children.


Child Neglect May Not Be a Willful Act but Drug Abuse Is

Sure, there are bad parents out there. Mothers and fathers who make cognitive choices that put their sons’ and daughters’ health and safety in jeopardy. But when drug and alcohol use escalate into addiction, brain cognition is not what it was before. Because drug use and heavy alcohol consumption affect the brain’s prefrontal cortex, the area that houses decision-making and judgment, the user loses the ability to make reasonable choices.

Unfortunately, if this happens to a parent, no matter how much they love their children, it doesn’t change the negative effects and subsequent ramifications of the addiction. To a child, the here and now is what matters. If basic needs aren’t being met; food, water, shelter, clothing, touch, attention – it feels like neglect because it is neglect.

Helplessness Is Seen and Repeated

Putting the stigmas associated with substance abuse aside, there is an overwhelming element of victimization that comes with the territory. If addiction truly is a disease, overcoming it, like other diseases, is often an uphill battle. However, other illnesses and diseases aren’t as readily precipitated by

coercion or willful acts that bring about the disease. Addiction does, by the act of initiating drug or alcohol use recreationally and, in the instances of prescription pills, medically.

For the child living with a parent addicted to drugs or alcohol, the use and addictive behaviors become accepted as normal. From there, the child does what is necessary to survive, believing that nothing and no one is there to help or care.

Neglected Children in Arizona Aren’t Noticed Until It’s Too Late

Pima County Juvenile Court records in 2016 provide evidence that near 70 percent of neglect and abuse cases that crossed its desks included substance abuse. The statistics of dual diagnosis (people with substance addiction and a mental illness) across the country, on average, is 50 percent. It stands to reason then that families with mental health issues in the court system in Pima County increased to 52 percent in only eight years (2008-2016).

Children of Addiction Need Answers from Many Fronts

Arizona courts don’t generally favor separating children from their parents. In divorce cases, it takes insurmountable evidence to show just cause in removing custody as the overriding family covenant is to maintain the traditional family dynamic as much as possible. For a parent with a drug or alcohol problem, they are to seek help for the addiction. The hope that a parent will overcome their problem with court intervention (detox, supervised visits, counselors and case workers) isn’t just about helping the parent but any success story is a win for the state agencies involved. But is this a win for the child or merely a band-aid on a much deeper issue?

Addiction Ends Where Recovery Begins

There’s a reason why addiction treatment experts say that recovery from the disease is a lifelong process. Drug and alcohol addiction not only affect the addict but all family members. As such, recovery must include the family. Because addiction changes the emotional, mental, physical and spiritual realms of a person, as the addict begins to heal, every aspect of his/her being will change and continue to change as various stages of recovery are met and experienced.

Families need to be included in the process and learn how to reenter the relationship with the recovering addict and form healthier bonds, safe spaces or boundaries for interaction and realistic expectations of one another. It’s essential that children are brought into the fold as well. But court-appointed case workers aren’t addiction treatment experts.

Child Custody Law with Addiction Remains Muddy [H3] In 2013, the child custody law was modified to balance the rights of mothers and fathers. The best interests of the child is still the prevailing guideline though the language regarding parental drug abuse is ambiguous. According to Gary Frank Law, “The statute does not define what constitutes abuse of drugs or alcohol.” This lack of clarity in what is deemed as drug abuse will no doubt be a source of contention for attorneys fighting these cases, families in the court system and the innocent victims – their children.

The Case of Isabella

The following depicts a true story about a young girl caught in the court system. I have used a fictitious name Isabella to protect her and the other people involved as the case is ongoing.

Isabella’s parents never married and were no longer in a relationship. Her mother struggled with drug addiction but was in recovery. Isabella’s father had trouble getting work and there were indications that he was neglecting Isabella while under his care. As a temporary solution, Isabella was brought into the home of a loving couple as temporary adoptive parents.

After multiple visitations with the child’s natural parents, it seemed the mother was getting more comfortable with addiction recovery. But after overnight visits with her father, Isabella showed signs of bruising. The concerns about physical abuse continued and the temporary custodial parents mentioned this to case workers. That’s when the battle began.

After more than three years, which is just shy of Isabella’s age, the courts ruled in the natural parents’ favor, despite evidence of physical abuse by the father. In addition, the mother was only granted visitation rights while the father has sole custody of her. Isabella is still at risk.

Making Strides to Keep Children Safe and Families Together

Various new laws and behavioral health initiatives have been put forth by Arizona Governor Doug Ducey in recent years to help ease the pain of addiction and the stress on families. For a parent grappling with drug or alcohol abuse, F.I.R.S.T. (Families in Recovery Succeeding Together) provides assistance to those having trouble with employment or caring for their child due to addiction. To protect the unborn babies who will be brought into the world with addictions from their mother’s use, SENSE (Substance Exposed Newborn Safe Environment) was established to help with addiction recovery, counseling services and the guidance of best practices in care until the child reaches the age of five.

More funding was also allocated for drug rehab programs that include medication-assisted treatment options to help combat the widespread opioid epidemic. Statewide implementation of the Good Samaritan law allows people who fear that an overdose is eminent or in process can call for help, without being prosecuted for drug possession.

Awareness and human intervention will help strengthen drug prevention causes and decrease the risks to families and the children affected by drug and alcohol addiction when left untreated.

Get Out from Under Your Fear and Start Recovery Now