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Epidemics' Eyewitnesses: Clark County Children's Counselors Reflect

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And now, an eyewitness account of the addiction epidemic. Four decades ago, when Winkie Mitchell and Ellen Stickney began their careers, they  worked with the children of alcoholics at Clark County Mental Health Services. Before retiring as counselors, they'd also seen the children of crack, meth and opioid addicts. In this interview with WYSO Community Voices producer and Springfield News-Sun writer Tom Stafford, they share a glimpse of what they saw in those children's lives.

Stop, look and listen. In their 40-year careers counseling Clark County children, Winkie Mitchell and Ellen Stickney followed that procedure time and again.

And what they learned more recently with children of opioid addicts is the same thing they learned in the 1980s with the children of alcoholics.

As Mitchell puts it, children know much more than adults think they do.

"They know when their dad’s drunk, what side of the car he gets out of, how he’s walking," Mitchell said, "if he’s mad. And some of them have to, because it’s survival. Every child I saw -- that was an issue in their house."

And children felt its conseqences, she said. Then came the crazy days of crack and cocaine.

"People were more erratic. [There was] more violence connected to them. You also had the selling of the drugs in these kids’ houses, so people were coming and going. You had police raids, other dealers coming after that dealer. So, it was all these dynamics," Mitchell said.

Meth and opioids continued the blunt force psychic trauma Stickney describes.

"The impact is, is just so hard for kids," Stickney said. "They love their parents no matter what. But they’ve been damaged. Their own sense of self has been damaged in that, they carry a lot of shame for what happened -- what they did do or what they didn’t do. That has become more intense, just more of it."

The resulting problems now challenge even experienced foster parents trying to work with those children, she said. And the many grandparents who, overnight, became parents again.

"They had worked, they retired, they downsized the house. And then, all of a sudden, they’ve got to go back to work, they’ve got three kids who are wounded and hurt. They’re angry, and they had to deal with their child in all that," Mitchell said.

"The other thing that grandparents have to give up is being a grandparent," Stickney said, "which is very sad."

Although it seems to pale in comparison, Stickney worries that children in more stable homes are at risk from overdoses of another kind: childhood activities. Volleyball and music lessons that give way to art enrichment classes and ballet, then scouting, yoga and soccer.

“Any one of those could be very beneficial to them, but, taken altogether, leave very little time for a family, very little time for deep relationships. In my field, there have been lots of opportunities and lots of pressure to learn different techniques and different approaches. And now, by golly, the research says what matters more than anything is the relationship."

She and Mitchell say the gross overuse of electronic devices thins those same vital relationships. Still, at a time when some parents work wall-to-wall to make ends meet, others can step in to provide that same sense of connection.

“Well, I’ve seen many, many kids that their primary relationship is not necessarily with their parents. It’s been with their grandparents, it’s been with an uncle, it’s been with a lady down the block," said Mitchell. "So, we as adults need to be aware of all the influence we have on the children that come in our midst. And we’ve got to step it back up.”

Both admit that larger issues facing children -- including income inequality -- can seem insurmountable.

“But I think the other thing, is that we can look on a smaller scale. What’s around us? What can we do," Stickney said, "and what programs can we support in this town?"

After spending 40-year careers in the field, Mitchell and Stickney are advising those who concerned about children anywhere to stop, look and listen for an opportunity to help.

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WYSO contributor Tom Stafford lives in Springfield and has written for the Springfield News-Sun for three decades.