Like many states across the US, Vermont is battling an increase in opiate addiction that is wreaking havoc in families in communities across the state, and research has shown that it comes at a high price for children. According to VTDigger, Vermont courts have seen a 62% increase in the number of cases of childhood abuse and neglect, and the cases are on the rise as more people in the state fall victim to the disease of addiction.
Opiate addiction is a “big piece of the neglect problem and a big concern for Vermont,” Traci Sawyers, an early childhood health expert at nonprofit Building Bright Futures, told VTDigger.
Even more alarming: Up to 70% cases considered by the Department for Children and Families (DCF) that involved children below the age of 3 were tied to opiate abuse in the immediate family, according to DCF’s 2014 Child Protection Report.
The uptick is an alarming trend that has been amplified in the past several years. In 2002, there were only 12 babies born that had been exposed to opiates at local hospital Fletcher-Allen Health Center. Fast forward ten years and the number had increased to 136. Without a shadow of a doubt, the addiction epidemic is taking a toll on families, especially vulnerable children. The origins of the child abuse and neglect cases, according to research, is primarily addiction-related. Cited by social workers in official paperwork, substance abuse issues in the family were mentioned twice as often as financial stress, another leading cause of abuse and neglect of children.
And while many addicts aren’t purposefully hurting their kids, neglect can be just as damaging to children in their formative years as physical abuse. A 2012 Harvard University study revealed that neglect is capable of causing more harm to a child’s development than physical trauma. This is related to a near-constant level of what researchers call “toxic stress” that is a result of having unfulfilled basic needs – such as affection, regular meals, and assistance with daily hygiene.
Dr. Jim Hudziak, director of the University of Vermont’s Center for Children, Youth and Families, told VTDigger that he would like to see less court time and more treatment and recovery options for families struggling with the disease of addiction. “It would be better to help the parents by treating their drug addiction and teaching them to parent than to send them into the correctional system. It makes more sense to help the whole family,” said Hudziak.