2018 Family Law Symposium: The Effects of Substance Abuse and Domestic Violence on Children of Addicted Parents

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David Newton’s sincere reflections on the 2018 Family Law Symposium

Listening to Jerry Moe open this year’s 2018 Family Law Symposium was invigorating and a fresh reminder that there are really good people out there doing really good for people struggling directly with addiction and for their families who are also directly and indirectly impacted!  Jerry is the National Director of the Children’s Program at Hazelden Betty Ford and the moderator at this year’s 2018 Family Law Symposium. He spoke passionately about the devastating effects on children of growing up in a household where there is addiction, and what can be done to support these children and their families. Never have I witnessed so much genuine love and devotion from a speaker at a conference!  After wiping away my own tears listening to his stories of strength and hope, I couldn’t help but think about my own experiences as an adult child of an alcoholic and as a father of two teenagers who grew up with a mother with active and severe addiction.  After Jerry spoke, the Associate Dean of De Paul Law School spoke, then the Honorable Maritza Martinez from the Circuit Court of Cook County and then Dr. Kim.  All shared their own thoughts, experiences and opinions on what can be achieved with a collaborative team of legal professionals, educators and clinicians to support children of addicts.  These kids deserve nothing but the best from those of us who are in positions of support, and this panel was devoted to ensuring that the professionals in the room understood not just about the nasty disease of addiction but also as importantly the resources at their disposal and the opportunities available to them to support these kids in a positive and meaningful way.

Then it was my turn…  I too was on this panel.  I thought I was prepared and agreed to participate in part because I work at a treatment center and every day I witness first hand just how nasty and insidious this disease can be.  I also spent over four years in family law court as a father fighting for custody and primary parenting rights of my two older ones.  I know firsthand what it is to be a child of an alcoholic, to raise children of an alcoholic and to spend years in the court system fighting to protect my children in a system that does its best but has a long way to go….  This was finally my time to speak!  I was thrilled to have a chance to speak directly to judges, attorneys and child advocates who every day see cases like mine and who don’t always know the right answers because they are legal professionals and not trained clinicians, or because they have never experienced what “we” have experienced!  However, in the company of these giants of their respective fields, I suddenly and unexpectedly felt totally unqualified to be on this panel and felt as if my remarks would have carried no meaningful weight.  I stumbled through my time speaking about generic topics instead of what I had planned to talk about.  I intentionally cut my time short, and then reverted to a grateful and much more comfortable listener.

That night I woke up and thought to myself, man did I blow an opportunity… I do have so much to say, and like everyone else on the panel and at the seminar, I am incredibly passionate about kids and their god given right to be children while they are children and to be treated and nurtured like children.  And I know they need help sometimes in doing so, especially when one or both of their parents are sick with the disease of addiction.  I know from both my personal and professional experience that this becomes next to impossible when children grow up in an alcoholic home.  Watching my own kids lose their innocence at such a young age is something I will always remember with much sadness and regret.  Some of what they experienced was unavoidable, and some was a direct result of mistakes both of their parents made.  Once they were subjected to the legal system, however, their lives took a sharp and drastic turn for the worse.  Though the legal professionals involved were trying their best and some (not all) were focused squarely and thankfully on my kid’s safety, the overall process was a chaotic mess and in my opinion my kids were injured far more than they were served.  The drug tests and the ankle bracelets and the restricted parenting time and the paid evaluators whose opinions meant nothing and the lawyers who encouraged their sick client to lie and deceive and the judge who didn’t know who to believe and therefore ended up not being able to believe or trust anyone…  I saw it all.  My four year journey in a movie that could have been titled, “When addiction meets the law, prepare for a complete mess!” is an opportunity to share and educate in hopes of making a difference for others who experience something similar.

As we all acknowledged at the seminar, courts, lawyers and judges are not trained nor do they aspire to treat people struggling with addiction.  This work is reserved for professionals trained and licensed to do so.  However, legal professionals wield an immense amount of power when people end up in the crosshairs of their legal system, especially with people who are sick with brain diseases which impair their judgement, adversely affect their ability to perform basic functions in life including the most important one of parenting a child and often render them desperate and hopeless.

Attorneys can strongly encourage their clients to seek the help they need even if their instinct is to enable or placate their sick client by perpetuating the lies and the cover up for fear of how the case might be affected (in the short term!) if their client admits to having an illness.   I would like to think that most judges in the 21st century would always prefer a litigant admit to and get the help they need as opposed to continuing with the denial and the lies inherent in the disease itself.  Most judges want people to be healthy, they want children to have two healthy and stable parents and they want to move people out of their courtrooms as quickly as possible!  There should never be a reason why a sick parent should not be encouraged, often by the only person they trust when they are during a lawsuit that involves their family, their money and their children, to seek medical attention for their sickness.  Getting help is in their best interest and clearly in their children’s best interest. The disease would like ALL its victims to believe otherwise.  Attorneys should not succumb or fall prey to this.  This kind of fear based stigmatized mindset must stop!  Just as an attorney would never discourage their client from getting chemotherapy treatment for cancer, so too should they never discourage their client from getting medical and therapeutic treatment for their addiction.  Both can be cured but only if treated.  Left untreated, both can and do kill.  If an attorney is not smart enough to understand that being healthy (and alive!) is always in their client’s best interest and then explain this to a judge and advocate for their client accordingly, they should probably find another job.

Court appointed attorneys for the children should be mindful of the fact that they are working with a “client” who has absolutely no idea of basic concepts such as confidentiality, rights, laws or representation.  Rather, these kids are naïve and ignorant- because they are just kids!  They are likely in the middle of what will be remembered as the very worst time in their lives with poison spewing from their parents and chaos at every turn.  Living in a home with addiction has affected their lives in extraordinary and awful ways.  They don’t know who or what to trust, they often struggle with being connected to their feelings, they live with fear, they feel like nobody understands what they are going through and worst of all they often feel alone.  Once in the legal system, they find themselves in a situation most kids who grow up in healthy households wouldn’t know how to deal with.  Being placed in “the middle” and having to “tell on” one or both parents is a kid’s worst nightmare.  Kids inherently love both of their parents, they want to protect both of their parents. They want to go to school and have fun with their friends.  With addiction, parents can get extremely mean and nasty- beyond what someone who hasn’t gone through this can ever imagine.  When mommy or daddy says to their child, “if you tell him (the kids attorney) the truth about my drinking I won’t be your parent anymore…”, the child’s attorney is dealing with a situation that they are not trained to deal with and one that can have dire consequences on the child behind closed doors  These kid’s attorneys should always have with them a trained therapist like Jerry Moe whenever they speak with or advocate for these kids.  Just as the court appoints a guardian or kid’s attorney, so too should they at the same time appoint a kid’s therapist.  Every single time.

Judges do their best and they need to remember that they too are not trained medical professionals and therefore while they may want to solve problems, protect children and move people through their courtrooms, they should not be mandating treatment plans for sick litigants.  Just as a doctor would hopefully never provide legal advice so too should a judge not provide medical advice, even if it is provided in the best of faith.  As a treatment center armed with professionals who have devoted their lives to diagnosing and treating people struggling with addiction, I can tell you that treatment plans for patients are incredibly complex, they are or least they should be highly individualized to each person’s bio-psycho-social circumstances and they are regulated- meaning we have to follow certain legal, ethical and professional protocols for recommending levels and type of care.  When a judge arbitrarily mandates someone to “30 days of residential treatment” for their addiction, for example, we know the judge cares and we also know the recommendation likely did not follow a thorough and comprehensive evaluation process completed by professionals trained to do so.  Judges in this position should ALWAYS defer to medical professionals to determine the type of care someone may need, and the level of care needed to do so. Judges can also make sure that everyone who enters their courtrooms understand that the court is not determined to punish people who may be struggling with the disease of addiction.  This includes litigants and attorneys and will help de stigmatize the disease which will only encourage more people to seek and get the help they need.  Judges can make sure people know that their court views the disease of addiction as just that, a disease. It is not that the person is choosing to make poor decisions but rather the person is sick, and they may need professional and medical help.  Assuming the judge understands the science behind addiction, a judge has a unique and incredibly powerful opportunity to send these critical messages at a crucial moment in the family’s life.   By doing so, it can encourage and support the addict and the entire family to get the help it needs rather than unknowingly perpetuate the disease with more stigma, more discrimination, and more blame and punishment.

There isn’t much to say about the custody evaluators who are hired by each respective side.  They are hired by that side for a reason, because their beliefs align with and support the position of the side who has hired them.  If the court wants an opinion from an expert, which it most certainly should, it should have a list of trusted and qualified experts that it knows and trusts and then rely on that expert’s opinion alone.

Looking back on my own journey I can imagine a completely different experience for my kids and I and even their mother had we had an educated and compassionate judge such as the Honorable Maritza Martinez, support for my kids from the incredibly loving and highly trained Jerry Moe and a team of professionals lead by one of the nation’s most highly respected MD’s in the field of addiction such as Dr. Kim Dennis.  Though none of us will ever be fortunate to have this dream team, that shouldn’t stop us from pursuing one and it surely shouldn’t stop us from working together to create a better system for future families who may endure something similar.  This is why we all joined together at this symposium. It was an incredible event and one that should be had more often in more places.