“I’m just devastated to know that she was 14 and had her whole life ahead of her and now you know it’s just gone.”

Kimberly Maese spoke to the Albuquerque Journal last month after her teenage granddaughter, Ava Kersey, overdosed on fentanyl, a drug that her family says was provided to her by her own mother.

Family members also say they reported the mother to authorities multiple times for endangering the teen and her 5-year-old brother. “I don’t understand if they kept getting complaints, they kept getting phone calls, why is (it) that we have to bury my granddaughter before anything gets done about it,” said Maese. Even Ava had called child protective services to report her mother’s behavior.

Perspective: Teaching children to chart their own path feels more urgent than ever

No doubt there were many individual and systemic failures behind this tragedy, but one of them is certainly the failure of child welfare agencies to take seriously the problems wrought by drug addiction.

There is scarcely an adult alive who doesn’t realize the massive toll that substance abuse takes on this country. More than 100,000 Americans died of overdoses in a one-year period ending in April 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many of them were parents of young children. Some kids lost one parent. Some lost both. Some lost aunts and uncles and grandparents.

And those were just the ones who died. Many more adults were rendered completely incapacitated by their drug habits, and as a result created unsafe environments for the children under their care.

It is fashionable now to assume that drugs are harmless. Or that the only victims of substance abuse are the abusers themselves. Decriminalizing drugs and focusing our policies on “harm reduction” has failed to address the fact that many people suffering from addiction cannot be trusted to act responsibly.

Drugs pose a tremendous danger to young children. In 2019, parental drug abuse was listed as a factor in a child’s removal to foster care 35% of the time, parental alcohol abuse 6% of the time and “caretaker inability to cope” (often code for mental illness that may include addiction) 13% of the time. Experts suspect this is an underestimate and the real number may be up to 80%. In a recent paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, three professors from Notre Dame estimated that “if drug abuse had remained at 1996 levels, 1.5 million fewer children would have lived away from a parent in 2015.”

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But our policies often don’t reflect the seriousness of the problem. We regularly leave children in the custody of parents with addiction problems as long as there is some other responsible adult around. (There is no requirement that an adult always be around though.) We give addicted parents years to clean up their acts, removing children and then placing them back with parents who repeatedly relapse or show little inclination for rehabilitation.

This is true even with babies. A year ago, New York City announced that its public hospitals will not be able to test new or expectant mothers for drug use without explicit permission. Private hospitals may follow suit by reducing testing as well. Instead of getting more information that may help us to intervene in the lives of the most vulnerable children, we are getting less.

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Some states, like Connecticut, don’t even report to child protective services if they do learn that an infant has been born substance exposed — that is, with drugs in his or her system. Or rather, they report it “blindly,” with no identifying information. This allows the state to keep a tally of how many children are affected but authorities have no way of following up to make sure the child is OK.

Connecticut’s “Plan of Safe Care” policy notes that a hospital can develop a “safety plan” for the baby. According to the state’s website, “A Plan of Safe Care provides action steps for the infant’s caregivers to ensure the child’s safety, well-being and development.” No one seems to wonder whether a woman who could not stop using, say, opioids during pregnancy might not be able to follow “action steps” laid out by the hospital. And the plan need not involve any accountability on the part of a parent who was using drugs during pregnancy.

It is true that a hospital could decide there is a real risk to the child and report that parent to child protective services, but those will be exceptional cases. The implication of the policy is that most babies born to drug-using mothers are not much of a safety risk at all. This assumption is dangerously naïve. Until we acknowledge how drugs impair the ability of parents to parent, we will continue to lose young lives like Ava’s.

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Deseret News contributor and the author of “No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives.”

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