Kentucky children caught in a web of drug abuse
Studies say children of drug abusers are more likely to suffer from social ailments -- including drug addiction -- than other children. This story is part of a series that examines prescription drug abuse in Kentucky.
Avery Bradshaw was only 7 when he lost his father to an OxyContin overdose.
“They told me that he had an accident; he was gone,” said Avery, now 14. “I was old enough to take in things. I knew that he wouldn't be back.”
Now an eighth-grader at Rockcastle Middle School, Avery said he never really got over his father's death.
“It destroyed us,” said Avery, who now speaks out against drug abuse. “It didn't just hurt our immediate family. It hurt the whole family. … It's just made life a lot more uncomfortable and uneasy.”
Avery is among a growing number of children hurt by the epidemic of prescription drug abuse in Kentucky.
Children of drug abusers often lose their parents to addiction, experts and studies say, and are more likely than other children to suffer a host of social problems — including drug abuse.
But as the problem spreads in Kentucky, even children whose parents don't abuse prescription drugs are at an increasing risk of becoming addicts themselves.
Kentucky ranked eighth in the nation for nonmedical use of pain relievers by 12- to 17-year-olds in the U.S. government's National Survey on Drug Use and Health taken in 2007-08.
In Eastern Kentucky, the state's hardest-hit region, the average age at which children first get high on prescription drugs is 11, according to Operation UNITE, a nonprofit agency that fights drug abuse in that region. Many factors can be blamed: easy access to drugs, a lack of activities for young people and, in Eastern Kentucky, a culture that has made prescription drug abuse the norm, officials said.
Plus, “I think prescription drugs are left out of the conversation” parents have with their children, said Sarah Flynn, research and community outreach director for Operation UNITE.
“A lot of parents didn't see illegal drugs until college,” she said. “Now their kids see them at age 11.”
Ashley Watkins, of Beattyville, was 13 when she first experimented with prescription drugs. She kept on using even after the births of her daughters, now 7 and 11.
And by 2008, the girls were watching her sink into crime to feed her addiction, as she withered away to 80 pounds. They also were there when the police barged into their home that same year to arrest Watkins, then 24, and her husband for selling OxyContin.
“I wish I didn't have to look at them and know what I put them through and that it was my fault,” said Watkins, 27, who served a single day in jail but temporarily lost custody of her children after her arrest. “They were innocent and didn't have to go through what they did.”
‘A LOST GENERATION'
Addicts' children are at highest risk
Children hit hardest by the prescription drug abuse crisis are those whose parents become addicts, according to decades of studies that have shown they are more likely than others to use — because of a genetic predisposition to addiction and exposure to drug use in their homes.
They also are more at risk than their peers for delinquency, depression and poor school performance, according to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
And even if they don't use drugs, they often struggle with severe family disruptions.
“I'm having a lot of kids who are suffering the consequences of a loved one dying from drugs,” said Nan Herald, a substance abuse counselor with Operation UNITE in Breathitt and Wolfe county schools. “It's a lost generation.”
Herald estimates that at least a fourth of her caseload involves children living with grandparents, usually because their parents are using drugs.
Avery has lived with his great-grandparents since losing his father, Josh Hendrickson.
His mother struggles with prescription drug abuse but said she is clean now, and Avery sees her regularly.
Prescription drug abuse also preys on people whose families don't have a history of abuse — particularly in Kentucky, where abuse is rampant.
Attorney General Jack Conway's office said one in five teens has abused prescription drugs at some point.
National surveys say the average age that people first abuse prescription drugs is 22. But in Kentucky, 8 percent of children ages 12 to 17 took an illicit pain reliever in the previous year, according to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Sharon Teaney, whose Lighthouse Mission Center in Pineville provides support for addicts, said she met one teen who started illicitly taking prescription drugs at 9 and kept it secret until she was 13.
Prescription drug abuse “has become part of the culture, unfortunately,” said David Price, associate director of Kentucky Mountain Mission of Eastern Kentucky.
It's a “social norm,” said Flynn, with Operation UNITE.
Jason Evans, who grew up in Bell County, said he had already tried alcohol and marijuana when he took prescription drugs for the first time around age 12.
He said he mostly snuck them from his grandparents, for whom they had been prescribed. Although his parents were divorced, he said he had a typical childhood, with sports and friends.
“But I never felt quite comfortable,” said Evans, a recovering addict at 35. “Acceptance was what I was searching for.”
Early use of prescription drugs can have serious and long-term consequences. The federal government's National Survey on Drug Use and Health cites several studies showing students who use alcohol or drugs are at greater risk for doing poorly in school.
And according to federal health officials, children who first abuse prescription drugs before age 16 have a greater risk of drug abuse later in life.
Stephen Boggs, principal of Letcher County Central High School, said he sees some of the effects of the state's prescription drug problem in his school of 945 students.
Teens have been caught carrying prescription pills stolen from medicine cabinets and even selling some at school, he said.
“Certainly, (the problem) is gonna bleed its way into the school system,” Boggs said.
Educators, agencies, churches join fight
But Boggs, like educators across the state, works to keep drugs out of his school and help children affected by drug abuse.
Students learn about the dangers of drugs in their freshman year and must undergo random drug screenings to participate in extracurricular activities, Boggs said. Those who violate drug rules are immediately put into an intervention program, which includes counseling and police notification.
“The idea is to help them,” Boggs said, and the result is that “we have a very minor problem compared to the community at large.”
Rebekkah Helton Burkett, a school substance-abuse counselor for Operation UNITE in Bell County, works with students in that Eastern Kentucky community, providing drug education, counseling students with addicted family members and working with students who use drugs, referring them to treatment if necessary.
These educators are part of an array of people and organizations working to keep kids from getting addicted, even in the face of dwindling financial support.
“I think everybody's trying,” Burkett said, but funding hasn't kept up with the growing need.
When Operation UNITE's budget was cut from $10.3 million in 2007-08 to $4.6 million the following year, her community held fundraisers so she could keep her staff.
“We've struggled,” she said. “I wish there were more counselors to combat the problem.”
The agency has offered several youth programs in recent years, including anti-drug clubs in schools, overnight adventure and leadership camps, Shoot Hoops Not Drugs basketball camps and a program called Hooked on Fishing-Not on Drugs.
More than 60,000 youth have participated in those and other UNITE-sponsored activities, but budget cuts have reduced the number of programs offered.
Flynn said UNITE workers also try to educate children and their parents about how to avoid prescription drug abuse.
The agency employs 25 AmeriCorps members to teach a curriculum called “Too Good for Drugs” in the schools, tutor students in math and coordinate anti-drug clubs.
Starting in elementary school, UNITE representatives spread the message that no one should take pills or medicine that aren't prescribed by a doctor.
The agency also recently started a new “Accidental Dealer” initiative, which teaches parents and other adults how to secure their medications.
“It has to be a joint family effort,” Flynn said.
Churches and other religious organizations also have joined the fight.
Through Kentucky Mountain Mission of Eastern Kentucky, based in Beattyville, successful participants in a Lifeline program for addicts tell their stories to young people at the mission's Youth Haven Bible Camp.
The mission also has fitness and recreational facilities that give young people something to do. One in Lee County houses 10 bowling lanes, a game area, a snack shop with pizza and a fitness center.
“We're not in the bowling business. We're not in the pizza business,” Price said, adding that they just want to give young people clean, fun alternatives to prescription drug abuse.
The day Watkins was brought to jail after police raided her home in April 2008, Price was there to give her a Bible.
She spent a day in jail and was later enrolled in the district court's confidential drug court program, which allows offenders to avoid jail time if they meet with court officials regularly, pass random drug tests, and work to attain more education and employment, among other things.
Watkins said that she and her husband have been clean for more than two years. She got her General Equivalency Diploma and driver's license.
They also retained custody of their daughters, though it wasn't without its price.
“I think your parents are a big part of your life at a young age,” she said. “And my kids kind of got pushed away” due to drugs.
Her daughters lived with her husband's grandmother after the bust, and visitation was supervised for the first 45 days after her release from jail.
After that, it took three months before her girls felt safe staying overnight at the family's home, secure that they would not be awakened by police.
“It just made me feel terrible, because it was my fault,” Watkins said.
The children told her recently that they are finally feeling like they have a normal family again.
“I want my children to have a better life,” she said.
Talking to kids about drugs
• Be clear with your children that you don't want them using drugs. Don't leave room for interpretation. And talk often about the dangers and results of drug and alcohol abuse. Once or twice a year won't do it.
• Be a better listener. Ask questions — and encourage them. Paraphrase what your child says to you. Ask for his or her input about family decisions. Showing your willingness to listen will make your child feel more comfortable about opening up to you.
• Give honest answers. Don't make up what you don't know; offer to find out. If asked if you've ever taken drugs, let them know what's important: You don't want them using drugs.
• Use TV reports, anti-drug commercials or school discussions about drugs to help introduce the subject in a natural way.
• Don't react in a way that will cut off discussion. If your child makes statements that challenge or shock you, turn them into a calm discussion of why your child thinks people use drugs or if the effect is worth the risk.
• Role play with your child and practice ways to refuse drugs in different situations. Acknowledge how tough these moments can be.
• In conversations with your child, steer the subject to drugs and why they're harmful. If you can ingrain this information in your children well before they are faced with making difficult choices, experts say they'll be more likely to avoid rather than use.
• You don't need to fear that, by introducing the topic of drugs, you're putting ideas into your children's heads any more than talking about traffic safety might make them want to jump in front of a car. You're letting them know about potential dangers so that they'll know what to do.
• If you hear something you don't like (perhaps a friend smokes marijuana), it is important not to react in any way that cuts off discussion. If your child seems defensive or assures you that he doesn't know anyone who uses drugs, ask him why he thinks people use them.
• Tell your child about the risks of all drug use. Even without addiction, experimentation is too great a gamble. One bad experience, such as being high and misjudging how long it takes to cross a busy street, can change or end a life forever.
Source: Parents: The Anti-Drug, Office of National Drug Policy
Reporter Laura Ungar can be reached at (502) 582-7190 or lungar [at] courier-journal [dot] com. Reporter Emily Hagedorn can be reached at (502) 582-7086 or ehagedorn [at] courier-journal [dot] com.