Children in peril: Educators seeing increase in kids whose basic needs aren't being met
BRATTLEBORO — The increasing use of opioids in the Brattleboro area affects not only the users, but also those around them, and children in particular. In a recent interview Andy Paciulli, the principal of Academy School, and Mark Speno, the principal of Green Street School, talked about how the opioid crisis is affecting children in their schools.
"We've realized that there's a significant and dramatic increase in the number of kids whose basic needs are not being met – shelter, food, clothing, cleanliness, someone who loves and cares for them, in the way that parents are supposed to," Paciulli observed. "They come through our doors every day. I call them part of the generation of orphans living with their parents."
He added that many children cannot live with their parents who may be in crisis.
"We have a large number of kids who are being raised not by their biological parents," he said. "We have a lot of kids being raised by grandparents and foster-parents."
Both principals have witnessed the spread of opioids in the community.
"It's a problem without a solution in sight," said Paciulli. "It's never gone away, but now heroin is a cheap drug. I think in Brattleboro we're seeing a lot of relatively young people who are addicted, and who have young children.
"Some of these kids are born addicted," Speno added.
"Nationally the re-use rate for heroin addiction is 80 percent," Paciulli said, "so obviously it's not an easy addiction to escape from. I don't know what the answer is. It has to be preventive. If we know that the vast majority of addicts will remain addicted, there has to be an enormous effort to prevent people from starting. The Brattleboro Prevention Coalition does great work. That said, it doesn't really address the present crisis. The lens we have is with the children of addicted parents, and these children are in peril."
"They require a ton of support at school – not only academically, but emotionally, socially, behaviorally," said Speno. "It stretches resources and affects budgets. It seems to be a growing pattern, and more resources at the school level, working with the children directly, seem important – at the very least, continuing to support what we do have."
Speno noted that although removing children from their parents' custody may be necessary, it can also be traumatic, especially if they are in temporary foster care.
"What we know about kids is that offering a predictable environment is so important," he said. "Moving from house to house brings a lot of emotional baggage and trauma. When you have children living in such an undependable world, the one thing they can depend on is school."
The two principals said that Brattleboro schools are responding to the crisis.
"School is an educational institution," Paciulli said. "The kinds of services we offer are growing dramatically. Schools have site-based clinicians, and last year we hired a social worker to just work with families. All schools have at least one full-time school counselor."
Speno said the Green Street counselor is working proactively to build students' skills.
"When kids are growing up in households of addiction, one of the things they lose is language – interactive language, the back-and-forth language," he commented. "A lot of these children are accessing language through television screens or computer screens. So most of their experience is receptive language, not active language. We're using a program in the early grades called Social Thinking, developed by Michelle Garcia Winter. This curriculum focuses on helping students communicate better – learning whole-body listening, how to be social detectives, gaining better understanding of different cues in communicating with somebody."
Speno and Paciulli praised programs like Big Brother, Big Sister.
"They're really important, providing connections to the community and good adult role models," Speno said.
Foster families are an essential resource, and the need for foster-families in Windham County continues to grow. Susan O'Brien, District Director at the Department of Children and Families [DCF], said in an email that there are more than 140 children in state custody in the county.
"We work very closely with the schools and rely on school staff to report concerns of child abuse and neglect and to let us know how foster children are doing," she said. "We also try to keep children in the same school even when they may be placed out of the district as we realize how important it is for the child to have that consistency and support. We continue to urgently need foster homes throughout the county for children of all ages."
Foster families can literally be lifesavers for children in crisis, according to Paciulli.
"Last year alone, we had seven students who were taken from their home, placed in foster care, and those children are now thriving, and they were not previously," he said. "Seven children were taken away because their most basic needs were not being met over a long period of time. When kids are taken away by the courts, it's a last-ditch effort, after numerous complaints and after DCF has attempted to work with the parents over long periods of time.
"There's been an enormous change in these children," Paciulli continued. "Their medical needs were met in stable foster-homes, and they now come to school ready to learn. The change has been eye-opening for everybody involved. I was optimistic, but the transformation was greater than anyone could have guessed. After they got over the initial shock and trauma of being taken out of their home, they got healthy and are now thriving.
"We have some success stories like that can pump us up, but we have a lot of students who are struggling right now," he said. "As a public school, and as principals, we're supposed to be the guardians, in loco parentis, of our youth. We're their caretakers for a large part of their day, five days a week."
Maggie Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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