One evening during the blizzard of 1993, my biological mother surrendered me to the life-long care of my maternal grandmother. I was five-years old. She packed a bag, bundled me in layers, and walked me out the front door — instructing me to wait until someone came to pick me up. As an adult, I vividly recall the event and now grasp its reality: My mother was engaged in an insidious crack cocaine addiction. Left to her own devices, this was the best she was capable of doing for me.

Stories such as these were common during the crack epidemic between 1980 and 1996. Repeated news footage showed SWAT teams charging homes, incarcerated parents, soaring drug-related fatalities, children placed in kinship or foster care, and undeniable stigma flooded communities nationwide.

Today, amid a fearsome opioid epidemic, history repeats itself as we witness carousels of familiar images; families torn apart, children in crisis.

As a person in long-term recovery who was raised by a grandparent, I deeply empathize with anyone impacted by the disease of addiction.

In my role as director of prevention programs for the state leader in child abuse prevention, I appreciate the ethical dilemma Pennsylvania Supreme Court justices face in how to intervene with pregnant, substance-abusing women.

Last month, they heard oral arguments in a case involving a woman who gave birth in January 2017 in Williamsport Hospital, about 175 miles northwest of Philadelphia. The mother tested positive for marijuana, opioids, and antianxiety drugs that can heighten the effects of opioids, and her infant spent 19 days at the hospital being treated for drug-withdrawal symptoms. Clinton County Children and Youth Services (CYS) took the baby into custody, accusing the mother of child abuse under Pennsylvania’s Child Protective Services Law.

Criminalizing this behavior is not the answer. The threat of arrest and separation will only result in generations of substance-dependent individuals, promotion of stigma, and increased barriers to pre- and post-natal care.

CYS attorney Amanda Browning declared the current case before the court to be about “human rights, equal protection, and child welfare.” In my view, we can only uphold human rights and foster equal protection if we also include the welfare of the mother in the child-welfare equation.

After decades of sustained declines in foster care placements, there has been a trending incline since 2012 in the number of children placed in the system. Driving that train is the opioid epidemic. Children separated from parents face a myriad of holistic traumas due to interruption of nurture and attachment. These children are more likely to become substance-dependent. If this is the trending outcome and research proves it’s true, can we claim validity in a punitive approach under the guise rhetoric of “equal protection?”

Research conducted by licensed, trauma-focused therapists indicates that children who can remain with their parents during the treatment and early recovery process have healthier, stronger, positive attachment, and significantly lower ACE scores (adverse childhood experiences.) Children are significantly less likely to manifest conduct disorder, anxiety and depression — three conditions which often manifest in substance abuse.

Clinicians at Ohio State University found that when mothers and children were treated together, both were less likely to use substances in the future. In the United States, there are few licensed, evidence-based, inpatient programs allowing parents to enter treatment accompanied by children. Women seeking interventions are limited and threatened by the system and the possibility of losing their child upon admitting they need help. Attached to these barriers is the issue of funding and how they will afford a treatment stay or if treatment will be interrupted because of insurance terms.

We need a well-informed, cross-systems approach combined with services and interventions delivered through a scope of empathy, compassion, and empowerment. Professional systems must hold each other accountable to develop proactive policies for how to respond to this priority population and take initiative to achieve the most efficient collaboration between the criminal justice system, child welfare, treatment and social services agencies, and medical care providers.

We need public health nurses and master’s-level licensed clinicians to serve as advocates in these cases. We know that home visiting nursing programs play an integral role and create strong outcomes for at-risk populations. I urge the justices to consider why these professionals have not been asked to assist in guiding the courts to develop best practice standards for pregnant women with substance use disorder.

When I ponder that snowy night in my childhood and recall the times my grandmother struggled to make ends meet, I also consider my biological mother’s fraught decision. My heart aches for her. It’s clear to me now that many women in her position do not give up on their children. They give up on themselves. They are filled with fear and they lose hope.

For the voiceless children born into addiction, and for their mothers, it is my hope that prior to exacting punishment, those in power contribute to a mother- AND child-focused solution.

This case presents a highly emotional and divisive issue. I challenge my colleagues, my fellow Pennsylvanians, and these justices to be contemplative and compassionate. Always protect the child. Always. In doing so, please remember it is the sum of all actions and all decisions that writes the early pages of a child’s story.

August 15, 2018

Although the grand jury report’s findings have been speculated upon for months, the details it reveals of systemic and widespread sexual abuse of children by priests – and the cover-up of that abuse – in six dioceses in Pennsylvania are shocking and deeply offensive.
Childhood should be a time of innocence. Those who perpetrated these crimes were supposed to be pillars of goodness, kindness, mercy, and trust. Instead, they were pedophiles, predators, and thieves – stealing the precious wonder of our children – something that can never be returned.
There are lessons in this report for members of every faith and those who hold no religious beliefs. Chief among them is holding ourselves and others accountable to follow the safeguards lawmakers enacted after the Sandusky scandal in the form of amendments to our state’s Child Protective Services Law. Adults who care for our children must be vetted through background and criminal history checks, and obtain all required state and federal child abuse clearances. Organizations and institutions must have strong policies and practices that prohibit one adult with one child and rather must embrace a “two-deep leadership” philosophy. Finally, all staff and volunteers must have comprehensive training on child abuse recognition and reporting at the point of hire and ongoing through professional development opportunities. Parents must not be passive and assume those professionals who interact with their children are “safe.” They must take it upon themselves to ask to see the clearances and evidence that policies for maximum child protection are in place. Be engaged. Be proactive. Be vigilant. Your children’s innocence and safety demand nothing less.
The sad reality is that child abuse touches every community in Pennsylvania. And, as documented in the most recent PA Dept. of Human Services Child Protective Services Annual Report, child sexual abuse is involved in nearly half of the substantiated cases of child abuse in our state. Caseworkers documented more than 3,400 cases of child sexual abuse in 2017 alone.
It’s not just happening in Catholic parishes. Child sexual abuse can and does happen anywhere.
As community members, we each have a role to play in making sure that kids are safe. When children tell you they are being mistreated, believe them. When something strikes you as odd about how a child is being treated, don’t dismiss the hunch or your gut feeling. Make a report to ChildLine by calling 800-932-0313. Last year, 8,482 permissive reporters – average Pennsylvanians, not mandated reporters, made a report. We know that those folks made the difference in saving the lives of some of the 88 children who nearly died of abuse. Forty other abused kids were not so fortunate. They died from maltreatment.
I also encourage you to take part in an awareness program like the Front Porch Project® offered by PFSA. Through interactive discussions and real-life scenarios, the Front Porch Project® teaches neighbors how to defuse potentially dangerous situations involving children.
To deepen your understanding of how to recognize and report suspected child abuse, consider taking a Mandated Reporter Training (MRT) course. Mandated reporters are professionals and volunteers who are required under state law to report suspected abuse. PFSA offers comprehensive and convenient bilingual MRT classes on-line, on-demand, or in-person.
If you’re a parent or a child’s caregiver who struggles with substance use disorder, take an important step in your recovery by joining our “Families in Recovery” initiative. This specialized parenting program helps moms and dads balance the demands of their recovery from addiction with the responsibilities of safe parenting. The goal is to keep kids safe.
The worst thing we can do upon reading this report is to ignore it. We’re out of patience. We’re out of forgiveness. And we’re out of time. Make child protection a paramount priority in this commonwealth. Right now. Because every child needs a champion and it can be YOU.

Angela M. Liddle, MPA
President and CEO
Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance
2000 Linglestown Road, Suite 301
Harrisburg, PA 17110
717-238-0937
aliddle@pa-fsa.org