Solutions

Addiction counselors embed in schools dealing with the opioid crisis

A treatment center that helps adults is now helping schools and children with addicted parents

When Maddy Nadeau was a toddler, she was often left alone until her sister got home from school.

“I remember mom was always locking herself in her room and she didn’t take care of me,” she said. “And so I was home a little child all by myself. My mom just wasn’t around at the time.”

Every day when her older sister Devon came home from elementary school, she made sure she and Maddy had something to eat.

Both parents struggle with heroin addiction and for several years the sisters moved in with different relatives and foster homes. Sarah Nadeau began fostering them, and last year she adopted them. Nadeau says both girls were anxious and depressed and had a hard time focusing in school — especially Maddy, who was exposed to drugs in utero.

“That makes it very difficult for her brain to settle down enough to do more than one task at a time,” Nadeau said. “And now she’s removed from the only home she knows and she’s got confidence, and trust and abandonment issues.”

Related: When foster kids are moved around, schooling becomes an afterthought

The family lives on Cape Cod, where a growing number of schools are hiring treatment counselors to work with teachers and students whose families are battling addiction. The counselors work at the schools, but are employed by Gosnald, the largest provider of addiction services on the Cape.

Cayenne Kelly is a counselor who works for Gosnald. She is based at Lawrence Middle School in Falmouth, Massachusetts, where she sees Maddy Nadeau at least once a week. She has increased the number of days she works at the school because she says the need is growing to help children who are experiencing the chaos of addiction, including fearing their parents might not survive an overdose.

Related: At ground zero for the opioid epidemic, schools are helping students overcome the odds

“The unknown of whether a parent will live is a certain kind of trauma I haven’t seen,” said Kelly. “If you are a child who has experienced trauma, school itself can have a lot of demands and these kids are working very hard to have normal lives. So the opportunity is always welcome by the students to have some time with me.”

Maddy’s adoptive mother Sarah Nadeau says she and her older sister are doing much better in school and leading more stable lives. She credits the Gosnald counselors.

“Their day runs smoother. They can get out their anxiety while they’re in school instead of bottling it up, and then go back to class and continue learning,” she said.

These specialized treatment counselors are also there to support teachers who must navigate how to educate kids whose families are consumed by addiction. Carolyn Alves has been teaching for 17 years, most of them at Lawrence Middle School. She says an increasing number of her students either are living in foster care or have moved in with other family members because their parents are dead, in jail, or struggling with active addiction.

“It’s a lot,” said Alves. “You’re dealing with addiction. You’re dealing with trauma. You’re dealing with loss and that’s what they’re up against, a lot of these kids. And you know that what they need is a lot bigger than what you can give to them as their teachers.”

Each school pays Gosnald a fee for its counselors. Private insurance covers the student’s individual sessions. If insurance won’t cover the therapy, Gosnald will absorb the cost. Last year, 17 schools on Cape Cod used Gosnald counselors. This year there are more than 50 schools offering these services to students throughout Massachusetts.

“I wish that more schools offered it because the epidemic is everywhere,” said Sarah Nadeau. “For a lot of these kids school is the only place that is stable. They get their lunch here, they get their education here, so why not give them their support while they’re here at the school?”

This story about the opioid crisis was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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