COVID-19 has spurred many problems. Among them: local agencies that work with children report an uptick in substance misuse by parents since the start of the pandemic.
They are working to support kids dealing with the fallout, and to prevent moms and dads from overdosing and leaving some children as orphans.
"The pandemic has wreaked havoc on communities,” Vanessa Dorantes, commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, said.
That includes dozens of Connecticut children losing their parents not only to the virus, but to the parallel tragedy of substance misuse.
DCF reports a rise in cases since the start of the pandemic.
"In combination with the medical crisis, the pandemic has created an increase in substance use deaths. And so some of the families that get referred to us have had a parent or two overdose,” Dorantes said.
In some cases, those overdoses lead to parents dying.
In the 18 months between March of 2020 and August of 2021, 34 parents died from substance misuse across Connecticut: 23 mothers and 11 fathers. Those are only the deaths reported to DCF, so there are likely more.
"Three dozen deaths of parents related to drug overdose, typically opioids,” said Sarah Egan, child advocate and co-chair of the Child Fatality Review Panel, which compiled the data.
That data also shows that 60 children under the age of 17 lost a caregiver, including 15 kids under the age of five.
“I think it has significant implications for how Connecticut uses the opioid settlement dollars, making sure that as those dollars are used for abatement pursuant to the settlement, we think about treatment options for adults, that we’re also thinking about the needs of children who have lost so much,” Egan said.
In Norwalk, the Family and Children’s Agency, a human services center, is working to fill both needs.
"We have a highly regarded addiction program,” Rob Cashel, Family and Children’s Agency president and CEO, said. “Certainly we have seen an uptick in the number of people seeking out support, in our case women with addiction issues. And that obviously has a huge impact on the children."
That addiction treatment and mental health program for women, called “Project REWARD,” has seen a 46% increase in women seeking services since the program began.
Program Director Jessica Vivenzio said substance misuse is exacerbated by isolation, food insecurity and overflowing childcare centers.
“Even the most strong and solid people who were in recovery struggled during COVID, during that isolation, and experienced relapses,” Vivenzio said.
Vivenzio specializes in trauma, and she said if a child experiences neglect or loses a parent to an overdose, they can be effected mentally and even physically for the rest of their lives.
"Childhood trauma can be directly correlated to long-term side effects, mental health issues,” Vivenzio said. “Chronic health conditions like diabetes and cancer, the prevalence of smoking, the prevalence of substance use, all of those things can be related to whatever your adverse childhood experiences might have been."
“Project REWARD” is meeting the demand by now offering telehealth and hybrid services.
They also partner with DCF, which on the state level is working closely with the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, providing parent outreach and connecting kids to social workers in schools. It is all to combat the ongoing opioid crisis.
“How we will recover from the pandemic is going to be a collective effort,” Dorantes said. “And how children, who were impacted by their parents either getting very ill or even dying, will be the responsibility of all of us to lift them up and make sure that they can thrive.”