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Personal stories set the tone of hearing in U.S. Senate HELP Committee on Opioid Crisis Response Act


Jennifer Donahue, Delaware Office of the Child Advocate, testifies before the HELP Committee (Jennifer Perry on the right)

Some seasoned advocates say legislators are influenced by stories while their staffs are swayed by data. There was some of both at the April 11 hearing on the draft Opioid Crisis Response Act of 2018 of the U.S. Senate HELP (Health, Education, Labor & Pensions) Committee, but it was the personal stories that gave the sixth and final hearing on opioid legislation emotional resonance.

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) spoke movingly about the death of his grandson, Charlie, from addiction and the importance of talking about it without fear or prejudice. He talked about the lost promise of his young grandson who had been sober for four years and how important it is to be aware of symptoms and provide love, support, and help to those who struggle with addiction.

Jessica Hulsey Nickel
Jessica Hulsey Nickel

Early in the hearing, one of the three witnesses, Jessica Hulsey Nickel, President of the Addiction Policy Forum, spoke about her parents
’ struggle with heroin addiction and the impact it had on her life.

Nickel said that the impact of her parents’ heroin use disorder on her as a child meant homelessness, hunger, foster care, and ultimately being raised by her maternal grandparents.

I lost my dad when he was 48 and never made his way out of this disease and he died on the streets," she said, "and lost my mom when she was 50 because of the long-term health consequences of addiction, even though she was in recovery at the time. Im not alone. There are millions of families like mine who are suffering, isolated, and looking for help and not being able to find it every single day. We lose 174 people a day, like a daily plane crash...

Jennifer Donahue of the Delaware Office of Child Advocate talked about how the state was impacted by the death of a newborn, Aiden, whose parents were addicted to heroin and who suffered fatal traumatic injuries after leaving the hospital.  Jennifer Perry, the child welfare treatment worker who stayed with Aiden in the hospital prior to his death, sat behind Donahue at the hearing and was acknowledged in her testimony. In response to Aiden's death, Delaware House Bill 140, Aidens Law, was introduced to improve the response protocol for the development of the plans for safe care

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who has been engaged with Senators Heitkamp, Durbin, and Capito in developing trauma-informed language to be included in the opioid bill, raised the issue of addressing other substances, such alcohol, that have devastated villages in her state.

In his opening statement, HELP Committee Chair Lamar Alexander (R-TN) reflected on experiences he had during the Easter/Passover recess in Tennessee. He said that this crisis is severe and it was not a new phenomenon.” He told about meeting criminal judges who said that two thirds of the 6,000 cases that they closed last year related to opioids. In Johnson City, he visited a hospital with a new unit to care for infants born in withdrawal—babies who remain in the hospital for days and weeks. To his point that this issue is not new, he told how he visited the home of President Andrew Johnson, who became president after President Abraham Lincoln's death in 1865, and the bedroom where the president’s 35-year old son died from ingesting a mixture of opioids and alcohol. 

Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), ranking member of the Committee, focused her remarks on the many stories she hears in Washington about children separated from parents, the impact of addiction on individuals, their families and entire communities. She heard from principals and teachers about how students cant focus on their work because of the trauma caused by their parents’ disease. 

Murray described the process of developing the legislation as a testament to the value of listening, thanking Alexander for a bipartisan effort that included members and non-members of the committee and hearing the views and stories from a wide range of individuals and organizations. 

Specifics on the draft legislation and how provisions reflect the work of Senators Heitkamp and Durbin the "Trauma-Informed Care for Children and Families Act” (S. 774)” were reported earlier on ACEs Connection. To access the testimony by the three witnesses (also attached) and view the hearing, click here. A mark up of the legislation (S. 2680) will take place in the HELP Committee on April 24. More details on the legislation will be provided shortly. 


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Thanks Elizabeth. I didn't know about Johnny Isakson (R-GA) and his grandson.  Or President Johnson's son. The depth and breadth of this crisis likely touches every family in the U.S. in some way. Most of us know of someone who's lost a child or a loved one to this crisis. I appreciate that Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) wants to extend the language of legislation, so that it includes other substances, such as alcohol. 

Were legislation to include behavioral addictions to the mix (and behavioral addictions do come with their own chemicals -- the adrenaline, cortisol, dopamine and other hormones and neurotransmitters created in the bodies of people addicted to shopping, gambling, cutting, food, sex, high-risk sports, child and spousal abuse and such -- there is probably not a single family untouched by some type of substance abuse addiction or addictive behavior. 

The root cause of most addiction and the pain it creates and perpetuates is childhood trauma. Let's hope lawmakers will understand this and truly look at the good that would come from supporting trauma-informed legislation. Cutting off the opioids is part of the solution, true. But getting at the root cause of WHY people need to use drugs to escape the pain of their lives is the issue that must ultimately be addressed: loss of jobs, opportunity, housing, medical care, family, community, and hope, and the trauma cycle that bleeds from one generation to the next.  

Thanks for reporting on this, sharing the stories, writing about ACEs science.

Truth, hope, and solutions are in ACEs science.

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