By Jade Woodard and Becky Miller Updike
The media are rife with stories of drug endangered children – children involved in sex trafficking rings being traded for drugs, parents drinking too much alcohol or taking too much medication and accidentally suffocating their children while co-sleeping, children eating their parent’s marijuana edibles and being taken to the emergency rooms, hash oil labs exploding, and on and on. The stories are numerous and tragic.
Each of these stories highlights the lack of clarity in Colorado state law regarding how to determine when a child’s health and safety is at risk specifically due to his or her guardian’s substance abuse. That’s why Senate Bills 14-177 and 14-178, introduced in the state Senate by Linda Newell and Andy Kerr, are so important.
The bills clarify state law by establishing a definition for a “drug endangered child.” Currently, there are no common parameters for professionals to use when determining whether a parent or guardian’s drug use, possession, distribution, cultivation, or manufacturing puts their child’s health and safety at risk. That lack of clarity can lead to confusion among law enforcement, social services, and parents and guardians as to what constitutes legally acceptable behavior.
Furthermore, recent data suggest that addiction is a leading cause of over 80 percent of child abuse cases. This strong correlation between substance use and child abuse, coupled with the broad language in the law, makes it hard to protect lawful drug users and even harder to protect children.
Last year, a task force, which included representatives from the social services sector, law enforcement, family support professionals and more, recommended a change to Colorado law to address these issues. Senate Bills 177 and 178 implement the task force’s recommendations.
Contrary to what some have claimed, these bills aren’t an attack on lawful users of alcohol, marijuana or prescription drugs. Nor are they an attack on children using medical marijuana to treat serious illnesses. Rather, these bills are designed to protect lawful users by making it clear when legitimate use crosses over to abuse that threatens a child. The current inconsistency only creates confusion that threatens lawful users — while doing nothing to help protect children whose health and safety may be legitimately at risk.
A child’s well-being shouldn’t depend how a particular law enforcement official or social services worker happens to interpret the law. These proposed bills will provide clear guidance to professionals regarding risks to a child’s health and safety leading to much needed cross-training and collaboration support.
Senate Bills 14-177 and 14-178 are about transparency, accountability, consistency, and — most importantly — protection. They help to protect Colorado children who may be at risk from their guardian’s drug abuse. And, by clarifying existing law, they protect Coloradans who are using substances lawfully.
Jade Woodard, MPA, is the executive director of the Colorado Alliance for Drug Endangered Children.
Becky Miller Updike, Ph.D., is vice president for child and family services for Lutheran Family Services Rocky Mountains.