Give the Youngest Victims of the Opioid Epidemic a ‘Head Start’ in Life

On April 9, 2019 NHSA submitted this testimony to a congressional subcommittee as part of the ongoing effort to increase funding to support programs providing trauma-informed care to children impacted by addiction and other severe challenges. In sharing her story with Congress, Andrea Fleming represented the voices of many caregivers who have experienced the life-changing impact Head Start can have on children from at-risk backgrounds.

By Andrea Fleming, Head Start grandparent and member of the National Head Start Association

For years, I had read about the rising rates of opioid abuse and other substance use disorders ravaging our country. But it wasn’t until a few years ago that I experienced first-hand what the ripple effects of addiction look like when they crash into our children. Fortunately, for many families like mine, Head Start is at the heart of the response to this crisis. Head Start’s mission to provide opportunities to our nation’s most vulnerable children and families has remained steadfast in the face of this new challenge. And its unique, community-based approach makes it especially adept to treating this deep-rooted epidemic.

Today I am the stay-at-home grandmother of two energetic, beautiful children: Dominic, age 6, and Kennedy, age 5. This was not the plan for this stage of my life, but life has a way of surprising us when we least expect it. Six years ago, my husband and I were empty nesters and working full-time so that soon we could retire and enjoy a more relaxed pace of life. Then, when we were in the process of planning our dream vacation to Ireland, Scotland, and England, our lives were changed forever.

Our grandchildren, Dominic and Kennedy, were born drug dependent and spent six weeks in the Newborn Intensive Care Unit at Akron Children’s Hospital. While they suffered through withdrawal, their parents were nowhere to be found. It became my husband’s and my job to feed and comfort both babies while they were shaking and crying, suffering from neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). While we were aware of the situation, we kept hoping that the children’s births would trigger better behavior from their parents. Unfortunately, drug addiction is a force more powerful than many of us can imagine.

The first few years of their lives were full of traumatic experiences that still affect them today. Sadly, the first year of Dominic’s life was spent day and night in a dark room, in a crib with little or no physical contact of any kind. He has extreme learning disabilities, sensory processing disorder, moderate autism, and most recently a diagnosis of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). He did not speak until he was 3 years old and many other milestones, like crawling and walking, were also extremely delayed. Both Dominic and Kennedy were physically abused by their father, as well as physically and emotionally neglected by their mother, resulting in a number of behavioral issues. In 2016, after years of back and forth with the children’s parents, my husband and I were given permanent custody of both children.

My husband and I had no idea where to turn for help. That’s when a local non-profit recommended Head Start, and our lives began to change drastically. With the love and support from Head Start staff, both children — who had been so isolated that they had no idea how to interact with other children — began playing freely with other kids. They now know their alphabet, can count to fifty, and speak in full sentences. None of this would have been possible without the support of the Head Start staff who were able to give Dominic and Kennedy the specialized attention they needed to overcome the numerous challenges they faced.

Unfortunately, stories like mine are all too common. While Head Start continues to be at the forefront of supporting children and families impacted by addiction, additional funding is needed to ensure that children and families have access to the kind of assistance that Head Start provided to our family.

Read the National Head Start Association’s “A Head Start on Treating Our Nation’s Opioid Epidemic” report, or visit our Social Media Toolkit to learn how you can help share our proposed plan of action.

That’s why the Head Start community — families like mine — are calling on Congress to allocate funding this year specifically to help programs implement trauma-informed practices so they can meet the existing, increased challenges stemming from childhood trauma. This would include funding for additional staff training, so that teachers — like Ms. Dancy who taught my grandchildren — have the tools and knowledge they need to support all children. Further, it would fund increased mental health consultations and provide for additional staffing for preschool classrooms.

As the primary caregiver of two children with high needs, it is abundantly clear to me that these funds are essential for Head Start programs to provide the level of care that Dominic and Kennedy were fortunate enough to receive. I saw the difference that Head Start made in my grandchildren’s lives, and I can only hope that every child in need is afforded the same opportunity for a happy and healthy life.

I am forever thankful for Head Start’s impact on Dominic and Kennedy. Frankly, I am not sure where they would be, intellectually or emotionally, without the dedication of Head Start teachers and staff. When we joined Head Start, we became part of a family. Despite my grandchildren now being in kindergarten, their Head Start teachers still call periodically to check on them. It is due to their excellent teaching ability and caring love and support that our grandchildren received a “Head Start” in life and are still thriving because of it.

No child asks to be put in a situation like what Dominic and Kennedy went through. Every day my heart breaks because their parents are missing so many new and special moments, like a first haircut, first day of school, or my favorite: a goodnight kiss and hug and my granddaughter saying, “I’ll see you in the morning for coffee, Grandma.” We love them more than life itself and will continue to do everything in our power to give them the best childhood and life we can provide. And, it’s because of the Head Start program and the staff’s genuine care for the children they serve that I am able to share our journey and help other families who may benefit from Head Start.

Head Start is not simply a preschool program, but a stable, caring environment where you truly become part of a family. Congress needs to prioritize funding for this remarkable program to ensure that every child in need has the same chance that our grandchildren received.

Andrea Fleming is a Head Start grandparent and currently serves on the Ohio Head Start Association’s board as a Region V Parent Representative and as a Parent Peer Supporter for Summit County, Ohio.