A Lost Generation: The Affected Children of the Substance Abuse Disorder Epidemic of Huntington, WV

⌛ By LeAnna Owens ⌛

Huntington, West Virginia, has the highest rate of deaths due to substance abuse disorders in the United States, according to PBS. Though substance abuse has swept the nation, other cities have not been more affected than the city of Huntington. 

As a West Virginia native near Huntington, I’ve experienced the substance abuse disorder epidemic in my state and seen how it has altered countless lives, including my own. I have seen needles in the streets and heard sirens in the air more times than I care to count. This epidemic is wider spread and farther reaching than anyone would guess. Besides the rise in deaths, burglaries, murders, overdoses, and crime in general, when I see someone with a substance abuse disorder on the street or hear of another drug-related murder, I think of the children whose lives are being affected by those with substance abuse disorders.

Due to the sheer numbers of those afflicted with substance abuse disorders now, the programs meant to protect the children, such as child services, are overwhelmed and understaffed. Often, unless the children are being physically abused, they are left in the care of a parent or caregiver with a substance abuse issue. The Associated Press recently reported that West Virginia's Department of Health and Human Resources' number of children in foster care are increasing, and a shortage of child protective services is becoming the new norm.

Approximately 6,290 children were in foster care in West Virginia in October, which is more than double the number of children three years ago. Officials say the rising numbers of drug and alcohol abuse are contributing to this increase.

These children, to me, are the biggest victims of all. Their lives are predetermined by the circumstances of their births. Another generation lost to needles and black tar.

The summer of 2014, my family embarked on a journey which would change our lives forever. We took in a child, a great-nephew, who needed us more than we knew. Through his eyes we witnessed a mother meeting her dealer in darkness with her baby in the back seat. We experienced hunger like we’d never known, and felt ribs poking through too-thin skin. 

The physical abuse was temporary but the neglect and mental abuse will last a lifetime. 

Children in these circumstances can be damaged well beyond what the human eye can detect. They have disorders such as ADD, bedwetting, sleepwalking, executive functioning issues or worse. 

Through therapy and structure, as well as proper nutrients, my brother is now a healthy little boy. He spends his days playing video games and annoying his sister. He goes to school every day and gets straight A’s. Even though he has been in a strong, stable, Christian home for almost four years, he still has issues due to his neglect as a small child. Habits others develop at a young age, such as brushing your teeth or wiping your bottom after going to the bathroom, are lost on him. These habits never formed because kids living with those with substance abuse disorders are often in survival mode and were never taught basic life skills. Due to the neglect, there are major executive functioning issues that he still struggles with daily.

My own experiences with my brother taught me to always be grateful for this life I’ve been given. I learned that life is unpredictable, but sometimes that’s a great thing. I found that my family and I needed him just as much as he needed us. 

Even though there was a lot to overcome with my own brother, I wouldn’t change it for the world. Seeing the excitement on his face the first time he saw the ocean, watching him learn to play soccer and basketball have been some of the highlights of my life. To call this resilient little boy my brother is a blessing I never expected. 

“Life is not just about the good things or not just about the bad things. It is both. It all depends where you focus your attention.” 
Ann Marie Aguilar

If you or anyone you know has a substance abuse disorder and needs help, HELP4WV offers a 24/7 call, chat and text line that provides immediate help for any West Virginian struggling with an addiction or mental health issue.

Copyright © MMXVIII Hourglass Omnimedia, LLC

LeAnna Owens is a Marshall University student debuting as Hourglass Omnimedia’s first intern. She lives in Milton, WV. 

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