Julia O'Malley

Julia O'Malley writes a general interest column about life and politics in Anchorage and around Alaska. She grew up in Anchorage and has worked at the ADN on and off as a columnist and reporter since 1996. She came back full time as a reporter in 2005.

As a reporter, she covered the court system and wrote extensively about life in Anchorage, including big changes in the city's ethnic and minority communities.

In 2008, she won the Scripps-Howard Foundation's Ernie Pyle award for the best human-interest writing in America. She has also written for the Oregonian, the Juneau Empire and the Anchorage Press.

E-mail her at jomalley@adn.com.

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A parent's addiction, a child in the system

Today's story deals specifically with Kristin's relationship to her son who she can't care for. Since the "Hooked" series began on Sunday, I've had a number of messages from readers who are caring for the children of family members with addictions. Here is one:

Thank you so much for bringing this horrible problem to the front page of the ADN. Tomorrow morning my husband and I have to testify against our son and his girlfriend, who are both heroin addicts. We are trying to get custody of our 21 month old grandson to protect him from their lifestyle. I could see so many similarities while reading Kathleen and her daughter's story. Not only is there minimal resources for the addict, there are even less resources for the grandparents who are trying to save the innocent children of addicts. We have to stop the madness.

My experience writing about children adopted out of state custody and about foster care has taught me that alcohol and drug abuse are major reasons children end up in state care. I also know that many children adopted out of state custody have been exposed to drugs and alcohol in the womb, or have been neglected by addict parents. Diana Weber, a treatment and recovery supervisor with the division of behavioral health, told me that drug and alcohol exposure can damage a child's impulse control and their ability to understand consequences. That, paired with the traumas of an unstable childhood, can make the children of addicts candidates to abuse drugs and alcohol as well, she said.

I spent a good part of Tuesday trying to get someone from the Office of Children's services to talk to me about how drug and alcohol abuse among parents lead children into state custody. It seemed like an easy question that someone at the agency would know a lot about, but no one ever answered it. OCS provides addiction assessments to parents who are trying to reunite with their children, it keeps detailed records of why children are removed from their parents' care, it manages cases involving parents who are seeking drug treatment, but no one at the agency could provide numbers that connected substance abuse among parents to children in state care. I wanted to talk about the lack of treatment for substance abuse and its impact on families. I wanted to talk about the public cost of addiction when it came to children in state care. But there was, apparently, no one could talk to me about those issues in any detail.

I assumed that the state department charged with taking care of children would have a very good idea why those children wind up in state care. I assumed that OSC must write grants and make reports to the governor and the Legislature and the federal government that use hard numbers to show how adult abuse of drugs and alcohol cost public money and puts children in danger. But what I found was a cumbersome bureaucracy where no one seemed to be able or willing to make obvious connections or talk about broad trends. It didn't inspire a lot of confidence.

Toward the end of the day, Michael Lesmann, a community relations manager in Juneau, agreed to address the issue in a written statement:

Alcohol and substance abuse play major roles in Alaska’s child protective services system. One or both issues factor into many of the State’s Child-in-Need-of-Aid cases. The societal costs of alcohol and substance abuse are reflected in the annual budgets of many state agencies – the Office of Children’s Services, the Office of Public Advocacy, the Department of Law and the Court System – just to name a few.

Parents who abuse substances often struggle to function effectively in a parental role. The basic needs of children, including nutrition, supervision, and nurturing, often go unmet due to parental substance abuse, resulting in neglect. Families in which one or both parents abuse substances, and particularly families with an addicted parent, can often experience a number of other problems including mental illness, unemployment, high levels of stress, and impaired family functioning, all of which can put children at risk.

The public is paying to care for the children of addicts. Would making it easier for parents to get into treatment, or paying treatment, reduce the burden on the public? Is it fair for the public to pick up the tab? What's the alternative?

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