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Op-Ed: Supporting Opioid-Affected Families with a Head Start in Treatment
Posted By:  Adam Marcum
Sunday, November 4, 2018

By Suzanne Prescott, BCESC Early Childhood Program Director

A baby is born addicted to drugs on average every 25 minutes in the United States, suffering from tremors and seizures induced by neonatal abstinence syndrome. After an often costly, lengthy hospital stay, too many of these infants will be taken home to unstable environments where substance-use disorders are part of daily life. Whether the primary caregiver is a parent, a grandparent, or a foster parent, one fact remains constant—these babies need specialized knowledge and care from the beginning, or they will likely lag behind their peers for the rest of their lives.

Rep. Brad Wenstrup recently wrote in The Enquirer that the pervasive grip of this epidemic requires a locally-driven, holistic response, and I couldn’t agree more. The good news is that in almost every community—including ours in northern Kentucky and southwestern Ohio—some children and families are already receiving exactly that locally-designed, holistic prevention and intervention approach through their neighborhood Head Start programs.

Head Start has more than 50 years of experience supporting the health, developmental, and school readiness progress of children from birth to kindergarten, while also supporting parents in setting and achieving goals aimed at their own stability and success. Teachers and staff in thousands of communities across the nation are putting that experience to work in responding to the harm the opioid epidemic is inflicting on young children and their parents. Through mental health consultations, individualized care, health screenings, and referrals, Head Start programs are successfully reducing the effects of trauma on our community’s youngest children. At the same time, these community-embedded programs connect families with mental health services, educational resources, employment, and economic opportunities—critical factors that can help those recovering from addiction to change the trajectory of their lives.

Here in southwestern Ohio, Butler County Educational Service Center (BCESC) has implemented the Therapeutic Interagency Preschool Program (TIP) Model into its Head Start programs. Using this model, our Head Start programs apply a trauma-focused approach with year-round preschool classes that are designed to be a safe, supportive environment, where self-regulation, connections, and problem-solving are developed and practiced.

Close integration with early childhood mental health counseling is a critical component of the TIP model, as are low teacher-to-children ratios. Like all Head Start programs, we focus on the whole family by partnering with parents in their children’s success. Caregivers are encouraged to engage in their children’s learning experiences and Head Start staff make visits to the children’s home to discuss progress, concerns, goals, and how to implement parenting strategies.

While we can’t erase the trauma that these children have experienced, we can build the protective factors that means these children can thrive and be successful despite trauma. This holistic approach to helping children and families affected by substance use disorders is making a quantifiable difference for them.  Data from the 2017-2018 program year demonstrates the children improved their self-control, initiative, and ability to form attachment relationships, and as a whole had a decline in behavioral concerns. The TIP program has also proven to be successful at reducing the number of foster care placements.

As a result of our model’s success, Butler County Educational Service Center was asked last spring by the National Head Start Association to be part of a nationwide effort to expand the role that community-embedded Head Start programs are playing in treating more young children and families impacted by the ripple effects of addiction. The result is a policy paper detailing the role Head Start is already playing and offering practice-based recommendations to Congress on how to tap the full potential of these community-based programs to have a greater impact for more children and families struggling to break the cycle of addiction.

Head Start programs like ours in Butler County are ready and willing to use our proven models to support today’s children in reaching their full potential despite the challenges presented by the opioid epidemic. Leveraging both local and federal resources would activate the full potential of Head Start in treating substance use disorders to alleviate suffering for tens of thousands of children. It would change the life trajectory for parents caught in the grasp of addiction. And it would transform communities ravaged by addiction and save American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars in long-term costs.

It is time to invest in what is working, and the Head Start pipeline of treatment is already in place.



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