Parents who have had children removed due to a substance use disorder (“SUD”) typically struggle with another devastating loss—integrity. 

This is due in large part to the disease. To clarify, I’m talking about integrity that has two primary components. The first is the one many people think of—honesty. Individuals who have a SUD often lie about their use for a variety of reasons. They may (reasonably) be afraid that if they tell the truth about their use, DHS will “take” their children. They may think that they can “beat” the test (and all the problems that come with a positive drug screen). It may be good old-fashioned panic. The thing is, DHS is going to drug test them, and if they are using, it will show up. Even when someone “confesses,” DHS will still test. Why? Because a parent may admit to using marijuana, thinking DHS will simply accept his admission and move on. But DHS knows from past experience that admitting to marijuana use may only be a partial truth. Dad may also be doing a “harder” drug like meth, cocaine, or heroin. DHS wants the full truth about the parent’s SUD. They want to keep kids safe (whether or not that means removal) and they want the parent to get treatment for any SUD he or she may have in order to safely parent the children.

When a parent lies about drug usage, she still has all the negative consequences of the positive drug screen, but now on top of that, she has earned the “untruthful” label, which will cause DHS and the courts to question nearly everything she says going forward. Parents don’t always understand (or like) this, and so they mistakenly believe DHS is “picking on” them when in fact, it is their own lack of honesty that creates the higher scrutiny.

The second kind of integrity I am talking about is the failure to do what the person says he will do. In the arena of a Child in Need of Assistance (“CINA”) case, this typically shows up as broken promises about getting into treatment or therapy, though it can also include really anything the DHS/Court has asked the parent to do (e.g., find safe/stable housing, get a job, etc.). 

I had one case where mom promised to get a job. Between the start of the case and the Permanency hearing, she had five different jobs, but was actually unemployed much of that year. In reviewing the monthly FSRP reports, she kept promising to find housing, but didn’t do that until eight months into the case. Treatment? Kept promising she was going to various treatment programs. Didn’t do it until nine months in. Her lack of follow-through on promises and other “untrue statements” led me to react to every new statement of “achievement” (or excuse) with an unspoken “documentation or it didn’t happen.” And that’s a terrible way for a parent and the professionals to go through a case.

But it’s even more devastating to the kids. At one hearing, a parent promised his 12-year-old daughter that he was going to “do whatever it took” to get her back. This despite making that same promise at each of the previous hearings, and in letters to the child from jail. Finally, the child had had enough. She lashed out at him at a hearing, saying, “Stop making promises you have no intention of keeping!” and then bursting into tears. 

I often hear people express disbelief that parents aren’t “willing” to do “whatever it takes” to get their kids back. “I would walk through firefor my kids!” they exclaim. But we know that SUDs rewire the brain in ways that make it nearly impossible for them to make different choices, especially when combined with well-established habits and triggers. 

 So how can we help parents change their actions? 

It’s interesting, because we try to send them to treatment, and therapy, and so forth. But in reading the research regarding habits and change, I wonder if we are, in some respects, making it harder than it needs to be. Or if we are prohibiting the very things that might help them succeed.

Occasionally, parents will want to move in order to take a job, sometimes out of state. While I understand the challenges with that (visits, DHS and court oversight, to name just a few), it strikes me that changing their “playground” and giving them meaningful work might help them in ways that would spill over into treatment and therapy (in a positive way). 

I had a cousin who suffered from a SUD several years ago. He pulled up stakes and moved to Arizona, because he said, “In [my hometown], I knew every place where I could get meth. I knew who sold it, and who had it. I had to completely change my environment and go to a place where I knew no one. Once I did that, it was much easier to avoid the drug—the new environment disrupted my destructive patterns enough that I could more easily create new, positive ones. I got a job, found a church, and made new friends. Eventually I was able to return home and maintain my sobriety, but that was several years later.” To the best of my knowledge, he never went to a formal treatment program or therapy. That’s not to say that those things aren’t valuable, of course, but when we treat people and then send them right back into the environment that launched the addiction, we shouldn’t be surprised when they relapse.

I have no idea what they work on in treatment, but I suspect when they talk about “triggers” that precede using, they focus more on emotional triggers than environmental ones. But environmental ones, identified and planned for ahead of the time they occur, are much easier to manage. For example, if someone knows he can buy heroin on a particular corner, one that he passes every day on his way home from work, he can choose—when he’s not using and not emotionally wired— to not go home that way. He can choose a different route. He can carpool with someone. Hire an Uber/Lyft to take him home, with instructions for no intermediate stops. 

If her trigger is time-sensitive, e.g., every morning after she drops the kids off at school, she can make plans (again, ahead of time), to affirmatively do something else where people will be expecting her. Maybe she can even volunteer at the school so she’s not leaving at the same time every day. If she wants to go to the gym (and the Y has a sliding scale, so she should be able to go), perhaps she can arrange for a friend to take her and the kids to school and then drive to the gym. Maybe someone else can take the kids to school, while she heads off in a different direction. 

These sound like small steps, and they are not intended to replace treatment or therapy or be the onlychange someone makes. 

Yet even small changes can disrupt a habit enough to change it, or to more easily add and maintain a new habit. In his book, The Happiness AdvantageShawn Achor notes that when he was trying to give up television, he identified the “trigger” as finishing dinner, then sitting on the couch and picking up the remote. By simply moving the remote out of his reach, he gave himself enough time to make a different choice instead of mindlessly grabbing the remote and turning on the television. A client he worked with who wasted significant time at work checking news feeds, his stocks, and email was coached to remove the “shortcut” on his desktop, turn off notifications, and keep the app closed when not in use. He immediately noticed his productivity went up.

Achor also gives an example of establishing habits. He wanted to learn to play guitar, but couldn’t seem to start/maintain this habit, despite goal-setting, “gold star” tracking charts, etc. By simply moving the guitar to within easy reach (displacing the remote!), he was significantly more likely to pick up the guitar and practice. His take-away? Make the habits you are trying to eliminate harder, and the ones you are trying to establish easier.

Integrity comes about one decision at a time. Small wins are easier to achieve if they become a habit, and part of a daily routine. Recognizing those small wins builds self-confidence. And both of those things make telling the truth and keeping your word easier. 

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