What child welfare can learn from the recovery community
Of the many concerns we have in the child protection arena, the one that should rise to the top is parental use and abuse of drugs and alcohol. It deserves our full attention, yet many jurisdictions remain in denial about an illness that thrives on denial and deflection.
No issue exemplifies the faulty design of our system more than the intersection of parental substance use and child maltreatment. Do we really believe a singular caseworker can outsmart the cunning nature of drugs and alcohol?
In all fairness, we have seen significant changes in places where there are drug courts and where they have assigned certified addiction counselors in child welfare agencies as advisors and home visitors. But when I speak with social workers around the country in my consulting role, I always ask them how much training and coaching they receive in the area of substance abuse.
Most tell me three hours, along with an occasional workshop. They know it’s the prime driver of our system, and simultaneously, the least understood. The dark hole of misinformation is especially noticeable when it comes to understanding the lifelong process of recovery.
Almost no one I speak with appreciates the pull or the insidious nature of addiction, and how lasting recovery is the result of a constellation of factors, social supports and peers who care about you. It might be the most significant disservice we do to families and social workers on the front lines.
Thirty five years ago, I realized that every time I picked up a drink, I lost points on my IQ scores. It didn’t help that my drinking became increasingly connected to emotional highs and lows, to holidays, Saturdays, then random days.
When it came time to get myself together, I connected to a hard-nosed but compassionate therapist. Sober people began to emerge in my life and I learned about the value of living one day at a time. It was early on and I was a little bent, but not broken.
Then, on a recent work-related trip, I was in a restaurant and asked the server for a plain tonic water with lime. When it arrived I was reading on my device, so I blindly picked it up and took a big gulp. It was gin and tonic. I knew this from the smell and the warmth of the alcohol pouring down my throat and into my chest. After 35 years, it was still the same sensation.
I gave it back to the server and exhaled. I began to think about humility in the face of such temptation. Then gratitude because of all the personal, social and emotional guardrails that were in place for me. Why would I jeopardize everything for one mistaken drink order? The truth is, I could very well have done that. After all, no one needed to know.
Without all my supports, a belief in my future and what I stood to lose, I might have finished that gin and tonic. I’m not involved with any government agency monitoring my drinking. No one has custody of my kids. Even if that were the case, I could clean up and put on a sober face tomorrow. Three decades plus, and there I was flirting with “what if.” The compulsion is that great for anyone who loses even the smallest bit of control.
This random accident for me was not a relapse, but it was a reminder. A good friend, who also has an extended period of recovery said to me later, the disease always loses to honesty and truth.
But what about parents in our system, whose honesty and truth are too often discarded or discounted by child welfare decision-makers? My own journey was what some therapists have labeled preferred grief, loss over which I had some control. That’s mostly not the case with the families whom we serve. By virtue of their generational history, their income or their race, and where they stand in child welfare’s legal queue, parents are at someone else’s whim.
Adults can do terrible, inexcusable things to their children while under the influence. Every sort of evil can find its way into an active addiction. There are no justifications for any of it, only explanations. But the road back to health is long and hazardous. No matter how stable the environment might seem, recovery has significant highs and lows that are almost impossible to describe to the non-drinker or user. Early on, it’s as if you are on an elevator going sideways. The tincture of time — the idea that things will resolve themselves on their own — rarely applies. Recovery is a lifelong process. Rationalizing your shortcomings is always along for the ride.
For parents who aren’t as fortunate as I was in my younger days, relapse is almost the norm. It is a process, not an event. It is subtle, subconscious and eventually, a series of unfortunate choices. It’s what old 12 step members used to call, “stinkin’ thinkin” — a boatload of rationalization that eventually makes it easier to pick up a drink or drug again. Every bit of energy, every resource goes into the next buzz — not to feel happy, just stable. In effect, they give up, allowing themselves to drop their guard, become isolated, dishonest and irresponsible.
But a solid recovery process isn’t solely dependent upon the individual. Social supports, high quality accessible therapy, and a community of peers who understand your challenges can make the difference. Mostly, for parents dealing with their own childhood trauma or the family legacy of substance use or the stigma of being labeled a terrible caregiver, there is a deep pool of shame. Until a parent, and their professional helper synchronizes the right combination of personal responsibility and therapeutic support, it is unlikely that their recovery will endure.
Undoubtedly, the situation regarding this dangerous intersection of child rearing and substance abuse has improved and as a result, we have more comprehensive approaches. Recent research and news coverage has raised questions about reporting of parental marijuana use to CPS, an issue that needs further exploration. Still, more children are now able to remain safely at home with the right level of multidisciplinary services compared to my early days as a caseworker.
The next iteration of our work should take a page from the recovery community. We need comprehensive preparation of our caseworkers, in partnership with addictions professionals, to understand the nature and compulsion of substance use. Then, train them to work with parents on action plans that are incremental, allowing parents to build on their small, manageable successes that will form the basis of an extended recovery.
Finally, we should create more opportunities for people with their own history of recovery to be involved with families at an earlier stage of intervention. Every journey toward well-being is different, but they all share those moments when humility and gratitude keep us grounded.