(Watch Full Video Here) As the heroin epidemic sweeps through Wisconsin, you’ve likely heard stories about how a young person’s addiction affects their siblings, friends and parents. But many of these addicts are parents themselves, fueling an addiction that interferes with parenting.
Anthony Alvarado, co-founder of the recovery group “Rise Together,” knows what it’s like trying trying to parent as an addict. Now 30 years old and sober, Alvarado struggled with a heroin addiction since he was 14. In his twenties, Alvarado had two kids, but he says he wasn’t a father, he was an addict.
“I wasn’t around the first few years, but how could I be? I couldn’t hardly take care of myself, much less somebody else,” he said.
Alvarado didn’t think he would make it to age 25, until one day when his three-year-old son pointed him down a new path.
“He walked up to me at a young age of three years old, put his hands on my face, picked my head up, and said, ‘You know dad, I love you’ and don’t die,'” he said.
At that point, his son saw him grow into a new person, free of addiction.
“He became a bigger man at three years old than I was at 24 years old,” he said.
According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 8.3 million children in the US live with at least one parent addicted to drugs or alcohol. In Wisconsin, Special Agent Cindy Giese is the chair of the Drug Endangered Children’s Program, which specifically helps kids growing up in drug homes.
“There isn’t a day that passes that we don’t find drug-endangered children,” Giese said.
It’s happening in Madison. In August, a 32-year-old dad went to a Johnson Street restaurant for lunch. Police say he went into the bathroom, shot up heroin, returned to the table and overdosed with his two kids sitting next to him.
Madison Police Detective Julie Rortvedt said officers have made traffic stops and found needles right next to a car seat. In situations like this, Dane County Human Services gets involved.
Child Protective Services Manager Julie Ahnen said a problem arises when people drive to Madison to buy heroin, and shoot up with their kids in the car. When Child Protective Services workers respond and have to take the child into their custody, the child may end up being the only person in that family who is in Dane County, if the rest of the family is from elsewhere.
Ahnen said the presence of drugs in a home does not automatically warrant the removal of the child.
“We look at the child’s access to the drugs, and how the presence of the drugs or use of the drugs by a parent affects the daily living of the parent and child,” Ahnen said.
Workers have to assess the best option for the child, which isn’t necessarily removing them from their home.
“We have to very carefully weigh the harm we cause by our intervention also,” she said.
The Drug Endangered Children’s Program has identified more than 40 risks for kids growing up in drug homes, including neglect, abuse, isolation and missed school.
“These kids don’t know about sitting down to dinner, or going out to play in the backyard… they know that if a parent or caregiver needs drugs, and that means making a drug run to a bigger city or across the state, they’re going to be in a car all night and be expected to go to school the next morning and learn,” Giese said.
Perhaps the biggest risk is growing up without a parent at all, as Lara Lewandowski knows. When she was in fifth grade, she started realizing her mom was different than her friends’ parents. She remembers her mom nodding off often and driving when Lewandowski said she probably shouldn’t have been driving.
“I remember her driving on the side of the road too many times and having to tell her, ‘mom, what are you doing… the road is over there,'” she said.
Before Lewandowski graduated high school, her mom died from an opiate overdose.
“I’m only 21 years old, she never got to see me graduate high school, she never got to see my last dance recital” Lewandowski said.
Her experience with her mom influenced Lewandowski to enter a career in addictions counseling.
“I think about her every single day. She’s my motivation, and I know she would be proud of me and my brother and the rest of my family,” she said.
As the heroin epidemic continues to sweep through Wisconsin, with more than 160,000 expected users, Lewandowski and Alvarado agree that these numbers only hit the surface of those affected.
“With this drug, it reminds me of a cancer where it’s not just the cancer patient affected by it, it’s the whole family and relatives,” Rortvedt said.
In Alvarado’s family, he may still view his kids as his heroes, but they now see him as their hero, too. He hopes his experience will help others who are struggling with addiction.
“I just knew he was reaching out the best he could, and at three years old, if he can do that, I believe anybody can… sometimes, that one person can give you that light so you can find your way out of that darkness,” he said.
For more information on Rise Together, visit: www.weallrisetogether.org.
Below is a list of resources in the Madison area to help with addiction.
Counseling and treatment:
Connections Counseling: 1-608-233-2100
Mental Health Center of Dane County: 1-608-280-2700
Family Services: 1-608-252-1320
Gateway Recovery: 1-608-278-8200
Lutheran Social Services: 1-608-277-0610
Hope Haven: 1-608-249-2600
Alcoholics Anonymous: 1-608-222-8989
Connections Counseling: 1-608-233-2100
SMART Recovery: 1-608-616-9884
Narcotics Anonymous: 1-888-431-7526