I was a talkative kid growing up. Teachers moved me a lot. They sent notes home in report cards. In middle school, I remember telling a long-winded story at the dinner table, and my dad impatiently gestured to get me to wrap it up. “Quality not quantity, kid,” he said.
I often think of that phrase when trying to articulate how the drug crisis affects West Virginia’s kids. And that’s a tough thing to explain. Quantifiable data— charts and figures— aren’t available. So I have to use words. And without hard data, much of what I say is ideas. Concepts. It sounds notional and hypothetical. It’s a murky picture, and it’s hard to convince policymakers and stakeholders to act on ideas. They want elevator pitches with policy recommendations to remedy the problem, usually within their elected term. But none of this is that easy. In this regard, quality is in the quantity. There’s a lot to say and a lot to be done.
Here’s what I mean: We’re talking about children and teens who are, in varying ways, times, and degrees, being raised by parents or caregivers who often lack the capacity to meet the needs that kids have to grow and thrive. It’s usually an ebb and flow of inattentiveness. For example, their parents may not routinely get up with them to help them get ready for school. Maybe no one notices that their clothes no longer fit. The fridge may sometimes be empty. They may not go to the doctor when they’re sick. They may have developmental delays that go unnoticed. Their schools can’t seem to get parental consent forms signed to participate in activities. Calls from the school nurse or counselor go unanswered. Some of these kids will change schools frequently because different family members care for them. They can be separated from their siblings, lose close family members to death and incarceration, have law enforcement called to their homes, and witness drug use and domestic violence as ongoing occurrences.
Sometimes, they may be victims of abuse and neglect. They may become “wards of the state” and remain within the foster care system for many years, being placed in different homes and facilities. The trauma they’ve experienced may impede their ability to connect with others and succeed in school. They may lack a sense of support and community and have never experienced loving and supportive relationships. If they have had loving adults who cared for them, these relationships may have been temporary, creating more feelings of loss and isolation. They may age out of the foster care system without any preparation or plan to care for themselves, seek employment, or hope for a better life than the one they’ve known.
Understanding the complexities of challenges kids of the drug crisis face is critical in forming a strategic response. We have to ensure their basic needs are met without relying on their parents or caregivers to always make responsible decisions. We need more staff in systems that can coordinate care and engage with disengaged parents. We need to ensure that all of our community members working with this demographic of kids know where local programs and resources are and point families to them. Our state should have a plan and task force in place to identify gaps in care, so if there are no programs or resources to point families to, there’s an effort to allocate resources to create them.
And importantly, we need more policymakers and stakeholders who are willing to sit down and listen. This isn’t the stuff that elevator pitches are made of. Until they do, I’m afraid we’ll continue to see more funding for anti-drug programming and efforts to create bigger systems— more CPS staff, more residential facilities— than policies that encourage communities to build better collaborative support to ensure we’re addressing Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. As long as we continue to define these children’s challenges by the burden the drug crisis causes to the systems that serve them— the overburdened child welfare system, the high number of kids in the foster care system, and the adverse behaviors reported by the public education system— the more we’ll respond with policies that benefit systems, and not necessarily kids.
Meaningfully helping children and teens affected by the drug crisis really does begin with listening to a lot of ideas, stories, challenges, and possibilities. It’s an inevitably meandering road that we should have started walking down a long time ago.
Kelli Caseman is the executive director of Think Kids.