Kids suffer when parents abuse drugs

There is a devastating impact on the lives of young Iowans

    Kudos to Iowa House Speaker Ron Corbett for his courageous decision to share with the public a very painful personal matter ("A Painful Lesson on the Peril of Drugs," Feb. 20).  The disclosure of his mother's struggle with a drug addiction is a good reminder, to those who may prefer to forget, that the impact of drug abuse is felt without regard to social or economic status.
    The story also focused our attention on this problem from the unusual perspective of a parent's drug problem, rather than the far more familiar story of youth gone astray.  The distress and disruption caused in the life of a successful, professional adult child of a drug abuser were obvious.
    Imagine what it must be like for the thousands of children in Iowa whose survival each day depends on a parent who is using and abusing drugs.  Their question is not whether they should succumb to a parent's demand for money, but whether their parent will have enough money left over to buy milk for their breakfast.   Rather than struggling with how to balance the demands of a career and a family crisis, these children wonder whether anyone will wake them in the morning to send them to school.  No doubt Corbett spent many sleepless nights worrying about his mother.   The children of drug abusers find their difficulty in sleeping is often caused by the loud party going on in their living room.  As they lie awake in their beds, they get high from the secondhand crack smoke they breathe all night.  And in the morning, they are the ones who will find their parent lying on the bathroom floor amid spilled aspirin.
    At the Youth Law Center, a private, nonprofit law office that represents abused and neglected children, we set a disturbing record last year.  For the first time in our 20-year history, tbe largest percentage of our approximately 1,000 child clients - 37 percent - were children who were under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court as a result of parental substance abuse.  Physical-abuse victims are in second place, at 35 percent, and sexual-abuse victims made up 17 percent of our client base.   Ten years ago, physical and sexual abuse reigned supreme, and parental substance abuse was not even a problem category for which we maintained statistics.
    Unfortunately, that does not mean the actual number of physical- and sexual-abuse victims has been reduced.  Instead, this reversal of misfortune is the result of the number of child abuse and neglect court actions in Polk County nearly doubling in the last 10 years, and part of the reason for that staggering increase is the devastating impact of drugs on the lives of helpless, dependent children.  Unlike Corbett, these children must deal with the sometimes "vicious" behavior of their parents up close and personal, rather than over the telephone.  And they are incapable of choosing appropriate action for themselves to take until their parents finally get back on the road to recovery.  They must depend on us to choose one for them.
    So this year, while we debate social policy, work to balance the budget and calculate income-tax cuts, let's remember the youngest citizens of Iowa, the ones who can't vote.
    Perhaps Iowans would be satisfied with a somewhat smaller tax decrease, if it meant that the parents of these children had the opportunity for better, more readily available drug treatment.
    Maybe we would be willing to pay just a little more, if it meant that these children had a better foster-care system with the resources to find them permanent, alternative homes if their parents are unwilling or unable to make the lifestyle changes necessary to care for them.
    This year, before the final flurry of deadlines pass, while we struggle to decipher the budget's bottom line, let's think about what we can do so that the story for these children might have a happy ending, just like Corbett's story.

KATHRYN MILLER is executive director of the Youth Law Center, Des Moines.

The Des Moines Register
Thursday, March 12, 1998, Page 11A

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