Children whose parents or caregivers suffer from opioid use disorders are at risk for immediate trauma and negative health outcomes as well as lifelong consequences related to parental or personal opioid use. According to a 2019 report jointly produced by United Hospital Fund and the Boston Consulting Group, the rate of children affected by the opioid crisis in West Virginia was 5.4 percent in 2017— the highest rate in the country.
A Lifetime Legacy of Harm
Another report published by the United Hospital Fund in 2019 analyzed specific risks for children whose parents/caregivers have a substance use disorder. One of the key “ripple effect” events highlighted in the report were situations where children were removed from their homes.
Most children suffer an additional harm, a “harm of removal,” when they are placed in a home without their parents. This harm includes the development of separation and attachment disorders. Children may suffer from guilt, post-traumatic stress disorder, isolation, substance abuse, anxiety, low self-esteem, and despair. Dr. Monique Mitchell, an American interdisciplinary professor, compares the separation grief of removal to that experienced when a parent dies. Removal is especially traumatic when separation from parents or caregivers is sudden or without a sufficient transitional process.
If the option of living with a relative is not available, children are often removed from their homes and placed in foster care. Nearly a third of children who were placed in foster care in 2015 were there for reasons attributed to drug use, an increase of 50 percent since 2005.
In addition to the immediate trauma, the life-long (and life-shortening) effects of removal and separation have been well documented over the past several decades by numerous studies examining adverse childhood experiences.
Common Legal Interventions
There are three common legal processes for removing children from parents and placing them with the state or family members: (1) a court proceeding involving an abuse and neglect petition filed by the state; (2) a family court proceeding; or (3) a direct agreement by executing documents.
There are alternative paths that provide a more participatory, transparent, subjective, and collaborative process for placing children with other family members. For example, methods such as Family Group Decision Making (FGDM) practices protect children while minimizing trauma, improving relationships, and offering increased opportunities for recovery.
An Alternative Path
This October, low-income residents of the Eastern Panhandle and other areas of West Virginia will have the opportunity to participate in one of these methods for alternative dispute resolution through a new legal project organized by Emily Neely, a Gerrardstown, West Virginia resident.
Emily graduated from West Virginia University College of Law in May 2021. During law school, she became aware of the potential for alternative dispute resolution, collaborative practices, and restorative justice in resolving family conflicts rooted in opioid addictions. She also realized that these processes are often inaccessible to poorer West Virginians. Inspired by this insight, Emily developed a project concept with assistance from my office, Waugh Law & Mediation. With additional help from Legal Aid of West Virginia, Emily further developed this project and secured a competitive Equal Justice Works fellowship, sponsored by the Foundation for Opioid Response Efforts. Legal Aid of West Virginia will host Emily throughout her two year fellowship, and she may be contacted about her alternative dispute resolution project at Legal Aid’s office in Martinsburg.
This fall, Emily will launch her project providing alternative dispute resolution processes for families to address legal conflicts rooted in opioid addictions. She will be working directly with families to better understand the needs of those suffering from substance use disorders, to strengthen familial relationships, and to facilitate mutually acceptable agreements. Emily will also be creating a referral network with established opioid crisis relief programs to provide educational materials on the benefits of alternative dispute resolution for opioid-related family law issues.
For program information, contact Legal Aid in Martinsburg by phone (866-255-4370) or visit their website LegalAidWV.org.
About the Author: Brenda Waugh, MA JD, is a lawyer/mediator with Waugh Law & Mediation, serving clients in the Blue Ridge region of Virginia and Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia. A graduate of the University of Virginia, West Virginia University, and Eastern Mennonite University, she has conducted workshops throughout the United States and in Canada and has published articles in periodicals and legal journals in the area of alternative dispute resolution. Web: BrendaWaugh.com; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; phone 304-728-3660 or 540-501-5501.By Brenda Waugh