Friday, January 18, 2019

The role of law school clinics in helping to fight the opioid epidemic in family court

This is a new article by Professor Suzanne Weise (West Virginia) entitled Defining The Role of Clinical Law Students, Medical-Legal Partnerships, And Pro Bono Lawyers: Confronting the Opioid Crisis in Family Court and available at 13 Tenn. J. L. & Pol'y 377 (2018). From the introduction:

Opioid addiction fractures entire families and leaves children orphaned by overdoses.  There is no stereotypical family of an opioid addict. The abuse of prescription opioids over the last two decades has grown to epidemic proportions reaching every corner of society while crossing gender, racial, ethnic, class, and geographical lines. As a distraught mother who lost her daughter to a prescribed opioid overdose observed, “Could be you, could be me.” Opioid addiction is a chronic disease requiring long-term treatment. Medical specialists in addiction have observed, “Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death.”
Nowhere has the impact of the opioid epidemic been clearer than in West Virginia. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, West Virginia had the highest percentage of drug overdose deaths in 2016. Adults aged twenty-five to fifty-four had the highest percentage of drug overdose deaths, which in many cases likely left children deprived of a parent. According to the Secretary of the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, eighty-three percent of the children in foster care placed in West Virginia are there because of drug problems within the family. These adverse experiences increase the children's risks of substance abuse and have an enormous impact on their development. In addition to exposure to substance abuse, the Center for Disease Control recognizes other childhood experiences that may adversely impact child and adolescent development: (1) emotional abuse, (2) physical abuse, (3) incarceration of a household member, (4) emotional neglect, (5) physical neglect, (6) divorced or separated parents, (7) domestic violence, (8) depression or mental illness of a family household member, and (9) sexual abuse.
Because of the risks associated with adverse childhood experiences (“ACEs”), some states have enacted statutes acknowledging the impact such experiences have on “the development of the brain and other major body systems.” Recent legislation proposed in the United States House of Representatives recognized that adverse childhood experiences can lead to opioid abuse. Legislation proposed in Tennessee sought to address “the adequacy of resources to assist children and youth impacted by the opioid epidemic and adverse childhood experiences.” An early version of a bill recently passed by the Vermont Legislature found that “[w]hile much is yet to be learned about the specific developmental pathways and predictor variables of opioid addiction, programs that reflect the needs of people who have suffered from traumatic experiences must be part of any comprehensive strategy to attack the opioid epidemic.” A hearing of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee of the United States Senate recently focused on the opioid epidemic's impact on children. Hearing testimony addressed infants experiencing neonatal abstinence syndrome and children of opioid-afflicted families now in foster care, as well as the remedial actions that need to be taken on the federal, state, and local levels.
Going forward, efforts to address the opioid epidemic must necessarily occur on numerous fronts. For example, family treatment drug courts have been established throughout the United States to ensure that parents immersed in the child welfare system because of substance abuse issues receive treatment and are reunified with their children. The responsibility of family drug treatment courts is to address abuse and neglect issues by treating underlying drug addictions in collaboration with child welfare and substance abuse professionals.
However, in many states, family courts possess limited jurisdiction, and collaborations with substance abuse professionals are rare. Indeed, a family court may have authority to order drug testing of parents where there is credible evidence of substance abuse and also may order a parent to undergo and complete a drug treatment program as a condition precedent to being allowed to regain custody of her children or to have (or increase) visitation with her children. But, typically the parent ordered to undergo drug treatment is left to her own devices in seeking a treatment program and finding the means to pay for it. Given these challenges, this article focuses primarily on the evolving roles of family law school clinics, medical-legal partnerships, and the availability of pro bono lawyers where opioid-affected families are entangled in cases litigated in a family court system.

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