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Opinion: To prevent child maltreatment, we must strengthen families. Let’s start with House Bill 1193.

More than 250 people came together at the Capitol earlier this month to draw attention to the need to strengthen families — a time-honored tradition among advocates during National Child Abuse Prevention Month in Colorado.

It is a time to recognize that we all play a role in improving the lives of children, youth and families.

Jade Woodard

Elected officials and community leaders play a critical role by looking at how we can strengthen families on a societal-level. We do that by listening to the needs of parents in our communities and neighborhoods and building protective factors around them.

We need to build a Colorado where all parents are supported by their friends, families, communities, programs and policies that make it possible to parent their own children to the best of their ability. That is how we strengthen all Colorado families.

Nancy VanDeMark

For pregnant women or new mothers struggling with a substance use disorder, fear, stigma and lack of appropriate treatment options for mothers and their children, together, become high hurdles to overcome to gain access to treatment, let alone complete treatment.

When a parent is struggling with a substance use disorder, their child is at increased risk for experiencing maltreatment, but we know that increased parental resilience, social connections, concrete supports, knowledge of parenting and child development, and social and emotional competence of children can help protect their child.

Building these protective factors in families is how Colorado can prevent children and teens from experiencing the trauma of child maltreatment or even losing their young lives.

In Colorado, we already have a start doing just that. Colorado’s Special Connections program strengthens families by providing critical services to pregnant women and  new  mothers  with substance use disorders.

But the  program, serving women covered by Health First Colorado, has a waiting list of between two and three months. 

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

To help ensure  that  parenting women can remain with their children while they receive treatment,  Mental Health Colorado and Illuminate Colorado, along with numerous other organizations, are supporting House Bill 1193 that would expand and enhance substance use treatment options for pregnant and postpartum women.  

The months that follow a child’s birth are both a stressful and joyful time for parents. It is a time for communities to wrap around every new parent, especially those struggling with substance use disorders.

Research  shows that new mothers with substance use disorders are at the greatest risk of overdose between seven and 12 months following delivery. While pregnancy and motherhood can also be an increased time of motivation for substance use disorder treatment, significant barriers create a gap between need and access.

Specifically, HB19-1193 would allow women to enroll in specialized intensive  substance use disorder treatment up to one year postpartum — as opposed to current requirements that enrollees must be pregnant.

The bill would help the state comply with the federal  Family First Prevention Services Act, which aims to prevent children from entering the child welfare system. 

It would also create a High-Risk Families Cash Fund so the state can increase treatment capacity and serve additional families, including children with behavioral health disorders. 

Most referrals to the Colorado child welfare system related to substance use are for children under the age of one month old.

Parental substance use is associated with higher rates of child abuse and neglect, out-of-home placement, longer stays in care and increased termination of parental rights and child adoption.

However, only a small percentage of Colorado’s residential substance use treatment facilities can accommodate children and few outpatient sites offer child care. 

Separating families is not only traumatic for a family, it is also costly, with reported foster care costs totaling $28,000 per child per year. However, residential treatment programs serving women and children produced nearly $4 in savings for every $1 invested through reductions in child welfare costs, crime, foster care and health care costs, such as NICU stays.

This  legislation would support  innovative pilot programs to  enhance existing child care resources for pregnant and parenting women who are seeking or participating in substance use treatment programs. 

For example, it incentivizes the creation of  mobile child care services for children under the age of five  that would serve at least three treatment facilities. 

Addressing the behavioral health needs of children, youth and caregivers, both mental health and substance misuse prevention, is also a recommendation of the Colorado Child Fatality Prevention System.

After reviewing tragedies in Colorado and the heartbreaking circumstances surrounding the loss of a young life in great detail, the Colorado Child Fatality Prevention System has recommended three main areas for a comprehensive approach to promote caregiver behavioral health: universal screening and referrals in the perinatal period; better access to care through coverage of behavioral health care services by health insurance plans; and behavioral health integration into primary care.

HB19-1193 will help advance this recommendation. It is what is needed to help give children whose parents are struggling with substance use disorders a brighter childhood, the childhood that all children deserve.

Jade Woodard is the executive director of Illuminate Colorado, a statewide nonprofit dedicated to preventing child abuse and neglect by building brighter childhoods.

Nancy VanDeMark, Ph.D. is the interim president and CEO at Mental Health Colorado. She has worked in the mental health and substance use field for more than 30 years.