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.
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. I’m 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, Aiden’s 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 can’t 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.