Keri, now 35 and studying to become an addiction treatment counselor in Illinois, learned she was pregnant in 2016. In those first days and weeks, she was a mess of uncertainty and confusion. She did not know how she was going to care for a child, whether her partner would be supportive, or even where they would live. But one thing she did know was that she did not want to use drugs while she was pregnant or parenting.
The problem was, she was addicted to heroin.
People who use drugs while pregnant and parenting are one of the most stigmatized populations in the United States. There is a pervasive idea that parents—particularly women—have a duty to sacrifice everything for their child, even down to their comfort and enjoyment.
It’s not enough to ensure that a child is well cared for; society expects mothers to also behave in a manner that looks caring. Once someone becomes a mother, she enters into an unspoken agreement to be scrutinized by just about everyone. If illegal drugs are on the scene, she is instantly labeled the Worst Person Ever. And this discrimination is greatly exacerbated for parents of color.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, “substance abuse” is a risk factor for child maltreatment. There are certainly risks associated with use of illicit drugs, though it’s worth noting that many of those potential dangers stem from the criminalization of drugs, rather than from the drug use in itself.
For example, someone who injects heroin in the home might be at risk of overdose. But this peril is increased both by the secretiveness that illegality demands, making it more likely the person will use alone, and by prohibition’s tendency to incentivize production of more potent drugs—see the widespread presence of fentanyl in US heroin supplies in recent years. Lack of access to the opioid overdose antidote naloxone also compounds the risk.
Regardless of the reasons, the danger of a parent overdosing while alone with a child is real, and cause for concern. Other issues could be that a parent with an active, severe substance use disorder might not have enough money to provide for basic needs like food and appropriate clothing, or might be too intoxicated to notice cues that indicate a child is ill.
But these are only possibilities; drug use takes place on a spectrum. The mere fact that a parent uses a drug does not mean he is not taking good care of his child. And it certainly doesn’t mean he doesn’t love his child.
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