Recovery for families

March 30, 2000|By Christopher Van Hollen

SUBSTANCE ABUSE is eroding the well-being of thousands of Maryland families. Severe neglect of children is probably the most costly, enduring and damaging social effect when it is the parents who are addicted.

More than 70 percent of the children who were placed in out-of-home care in Maryland last year had a parent with a substance abuse problem. That means that 3,000 children entered care with some exposure to substance abuse.

On any given day, about 13,000 children are in custody -- dependent on the state to protect them and provide stability.

Parental substance abuse is implicated in the most severe and abhorrent forms of child victimization. Consequences include birth defects, developmental delay, educational underachievement, and juvenile delinquency. A report issued by the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse says, "These children are the most vulnerable and endangered individuals in America."

Although a foster care placement costs an average of $60,000 per child, we have invested very little in tailoring treatment services to the needs of the parents or in coordinating the substance abuse and child welfare systems. Throughout the 1990s, the numbers of children in state care more than doubled to over 13,000, and the costs now exceed $250 million per year.

Substance abuse treatment can save both money and emotional suffering. The Child Welfare League of America estimates that for every dollar spent on substance abuse treatment, $11 is saved in societal cost. But treatment is not readily available.

Recently, in testimony before the Maryland General Assembly, the Department of Human Resources revealed that on a single day, 931 mothers were on waiting lists for access to desired substance abuse treatment.

Lack of available treatment is a statewide problem. The Maryland Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration estimated in September 1999 that 218,390 persons were in need of alcohol and drug abuse treatment. Of these people, only about 40 percent received treatment in state-certified programs.

Spending money to treat parents is far more humane and effective than dismantling families. Our foster care system is overburdened. Restoring health to parents who want help would seem an excellent investment.

Lawmakers in Annapolis are considering legislation to provide $16 million for substance abuse treatment upon request for parents of children already in out-of-home placement, or are at-risk of being removed from their homes.

The bills would also help child welfare workers coordinate with their counterparts who understand substance abuse problems. This teamwork would help families beat addiction.

Specialized knowledge and appropriate programs, as well as manageable caseloads for workers, are key factors in tackling the quicksand of substance abuse. Gov. Parris N. Glendening needs to honor the Maryland General Assembly's mandate to reduce child welfare workers' caseloads if they are to adequately meet the challenges thrust upon them by new timelines for family reunification, as well as the demands of families and children suffering from substance abuse and other social difficulties.

Senate Bill 671 and House Bill 7 offer hope for improving children's lives by reducing the plague of child neglect and abuse in this state. We must give parents a chance to redeem themselves, and their families, and give child welfare workers the tools to help children who depend on them.

Christopher Van Hollen is a state senator who represents Montgomery County.

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