It was 5:30 p.m., the phone was ringing, and the caller ID said, “police department.” Thoughts began racing through my mind at an unprecedented pace, and unconsciously, I answered the phone in anticipation of the worst possible news.
The voice on the other side of the line said, “Ma’am, we need you to come pick your children up from daycare, as their father is under the influence and legally unallowed to take them in this capacity.”
I quickly did as the police officer had asked, cancelling my business meeting so I could pick up my children promptly. Once I had my two sweet kids in my arms, I was overwhelmed with emotions.
This was the beginning of a painful journey I never imagined I would live. My ex-husband began his life as a devoted community member and a compassionate business leader who always helped others in need. In many cases, he was a loving and caring father who raised our children in the very early years while I traveled for my career. He was driven, intelligent and always eager to explore opportunities for creating a more efficient and enhanced electrical system for the clients he served.
Immediately after our divorce in 2016, he seemed happy living a life of freedom. A year later reality began to set in, and the grief of his previous life took a toll on him that no one ever would have imagined. There were days that I received phone calls from him at 10 a.m. and was unable to understand his speech, and nights I woke up terrified that something awful was going to happen to my children, given his chosen coping strategies.
When the kids came home, they talked about how they sang songs with their dad, went fishing and watched movies. They loved him and never saw the pain he internally experienced. In July 2018, when he dropped the kids off after his weekend with them, he appeared as though he had gained 50 pounds in a matter of two days. At that moment, I feared he would die and hoped that he would get the help he needed. On July 10, 2018, at age 37, he passed away in the hospital from chronic liver failure due alcohol abuse.
My 5-year-old daughter cried for two weeks straight, five hours a night, lost spots of her hair and began experiencing other immediate symptoms of severe trauma. At the same time, my 2-year-old son started punching, biting, saying that he hated me, and acted out in any way that he could.
After their father passed, my daughter began to share stories of dressing her brother in his pajamas at night, making sure he went to bed and cooking them dinner. It broke my heart to find out what she had experienced during her father’s decline in health.
In late 2018, I left the corporate and finance industries to pursue an opportunity in the child welfare sector. As we approach the anniversary of his death, my daughter said, “Mom, I wish there were people out there who could have helped our daddy get better, so he didn’t have to die.”
I began to explain to her all of the resources that are available and wondered why we had not explored them then. Was it a lack of education? Was it pride? Was it because addiction is so stigmatized in our communities?
According to the most recent federal data, in 2017, nearly 36 percent of children have entered care due to parental drug abuse and 5 percent due to parental alcohol abuse, which means more than 100,000 kids are in care due to these reasons.
The Family First Prevention Services Act, which passed last year and takes effect in October, will offer states the opportunity to use federal child welfare funds to place children who are at risk of entering the system with their parents in substance use facilities. This piece of legislation gives parents the opportunity to keep custody of their children throughout the process of recovering from their addictions. Family First also extended the Regional Partnership Grants program, which funds the development of evidence-based practices for treating substance use.
We are steadily evolving into a system that provides increased support and funding for services aimed at addressing the root dysfunctions of our family units. Will we be able to influence change among our necessary partners to go outside of their comfort zones and try a new approach to prevention? And if we can build up more help for dads (and moms), can we confront the stigma that keeps so many of them from accepting that help?
These are all questions that one person alone cannot answer, but with the strength of the community and by relinquishing judgement we can shift an entire culture to do what is best for our children and families. To quote Jerry Milner, associate commissioner of the U.S. Children’s Bureau, “We must recognize that all parents and families could be vulnerable with a twist of fate, all families are worthy and deserve respect, all children love their parents and that everyone needs a little help at times in overcoming life’s challenges.”
Rebecca Stone is a Foster America Fellow working with the Missouri Children’s Division on the Family First Act implementation efforts. The views in this column are her own.