Abuse, neglect of children often goes hand-in-hand with parents’ drug use

Boys and Girls Homes President Ricky Creech and Case Manager Amber Payne pet Kara along with Boys and Girls Homes residents.  Photo by Les High

Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a multi-part series where the Border Belt Independent looks at what has changed since The News Reporter’s six-part series in 2017 that reported on the opioid crisis and associated mental health issues. Today, Reporter Ivey Schofield looks at how children are impacted by parents’ drug use and how schools, social services, Boys and Girls Homes and other agencies try to help.

By Ivey Schofield
BBI Writer

Around a year ago, a female resident of the Boys and Girls Homes of North Carolina petitioned the president of the organization for access to her phone, which was prohibited on campus. Because of her mother’s addiction, she had been taking care of her siblings since she was 8 and needed her phone to continue to help them. 

President Ricky Creech felt bad for the teen, not for the phone rule, but because she was missing so much of her childhood.  At Boys and Girls Homes, he told her, it was OK to finally be a kid. 

“Addiction cycles become generational. We learn from our parents, what they do and how they cope,” Creech said. “It’s very hard for them to break that cycle without help.”

The cycle can begin even before birth. 

In 2020, 6% of newborns required help from Care Coordination for Children (CC4C), a Columbus County Health Department program that provides management services to families with at-risk young children affected by substance abuse. The number of newborns impacted in Columbus County is almost twice the state’s average. 

Through the CC4C program, Regan McAulay, social worker at the health department, helps ensure that children still attend their wellness checkups and link families to local resources that can provide diapers and wipes, which have been harder to come by during the pandemic. 

Columbus County Health Department pediatric social worker Regan McAulay goes through the donated toy bin in her office. Photo by Les High

If the parents still can’t take adequate care of their children, the Department of Social Services gets involved.

In 2020, half of all children in foster care in Columbus County were there due to parental substance abuse, which is higher than the state’s average of 45%. 

But due to the pandemic, Columbus County doesn’t have enough foster homes to accommodate all the kids who need them. They might end up at the Boys and Girls Homes in Lake Waccamaw, if there’s enough space. Or DSS might not have ever taken them into custody, since teachers who typically report suspected abuse and neglect were teaching children remotely instead of in person. 

Schools are mandatory reporters

The two public school systems in Columbus County are trying to prevent, or at least mitigate, adverse childhood experiences, which are potentially traumatic events that can undermine children’s education and job opportunities. 

School personnel regularly monitor students for irritability, difficulty establishing peer relationships, academic disinterest, trust issues and difficulty focusing — all of which are signs that there might be issues at home, including substance use, according to Heather Pigott, director of student support services at Columbus County Schools. 

“We all have a legal and moral responsibility to report abuse and neglect,” Pigott said. 

Columbus County Schools also hosts the DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program, which brings in law enforcement from the Sheriff’s Office to teach students about the negative impacts of substances. 

Crystal Coyle and Johanna Harrelson put together Christmas presents for residents of Boys and Girls Homes. Photo by Les High

Sheriff Jody Greene says the effectiveness of the DARE program depends on persistence, especially for the children who live in households with someone who is addicted to drugs. “Are you going to get all of them? Nope. But if you can get some of them, you’ve done some good,” he said. 

While studies have proven the effectiveness of drug education as a prevention measure, children with problems at home can also benefit from counseling at school. 

Thomas Academy, where Boys and Girls Homes residents attend, recently hired a full-time therapist for all kids of the community. Not only does the therapist listen to teachers and students, she also looks out for hygiene issues like whether students are wearing clean clothes.

Fixing the home situation

Addressing issues only at school won’t change the situation, according to Amber Bellamy, director of the Columbus County DREAM Center, which aims to empower families through health services, education, community development and housing. 

“We can focus on the child all we want, but at the end of the day you need buy-in from the caregivers,” she said. 

DREAM Center Director Amber Bellamy with children in the after-school program. Photo by Les High

That’s why the DREAM Center, in partnership with the Columbus County Partnership for Children, hosts parenting classes to teach caregivers how to talk to their children and how to understand developmental milestones. 

“If you know better, you do better,” said Selena Rowell, executive director of the Columbus County Partnership for Children. 

Some of these parents join the program because they think it would be beneficial. Others are there because of court mandates. 

Upon receiving reports of abuse or neglect, DSS works with parents through court-approved plans that involve parenting classes at places like the DREAM Center and substance abuse treatment. The primary goal for DSS is reunification between child and parent.

“We can only make recommendations and try to turn them in the direction of services,” said Algernon McKenzie, director of Columbus County DSS. “Ultimately, it will be up to the parent to follow through.”

While parents make their way through their court-approved plans, DSS, whenever possible, places children with other family members, like grandparents or aunts and uncles. 

Those individuals — or “protective persons” — can be key in preventing long-term issues in homes with substance abuse, according to Jessica Canavan, assistant director of community-based family services at Coastal Horizons. “We certainly know that parental substance abuse is a risk to childhood development and ongoing mental health concerns, but we also know that there are ways to help reduce those risks by providing those protective factors,” she said. 

A guardian ad litem court-appointed volunteer like Rosa Bolden who represents children in DSS custody in court could be that “protective person.” Around three-fourths of her cases involve parental drug use. 

A countywide effort

To further her impact among future generations, Bolden joined the Columbus County Partnership for Children. The organization emphasizes a countywide effort, which includes teaching resilience from adverse childhood experiences to schools, daycare centers and local government leaders.

Selena Rowell of the Columbus County Partnership for Children. Submitted photo.

“When we start to shift that focus to, ‘What are we doing to the next generation,’ maybe it’ll get more strength,” Rowell said. 

In recent years, Rowell has seen that community mindset gain momentum in Columbus County. For example, the Columbus County Board of Commissioners is considering using the former Acme Delco School as an in-patient substance abuse treatment program with Christian Recovery Centers. 

In addition, the Boys and Girls Homes offers community counseling services to reach kids before they go under DSS custody and live in its facility.

Boys and Girls Homes President Creech hopes that these community services can catch children before they become the teenage girl who had to take care of her siblings and lose much of her childhood. He wants to teach future generations positive ways of coping — like walking, gardening, journaling and petting animals — so they don’t turn to substances like their parents. 

“We don’t have bad kids; there’s a reason for their bad behavior,” Creech said. “But the cycle can be broken.”

The Border Belt Independent (borderbelt.org) is a nonprofit, online newsroom that provides in-depth reporting in Bladen, Columbus, Robeson, and Scotland counties, often in collaboration with the six newspapers that serve the region.