The little boy had run out of food, and he was hungry, so he started knocking on doors. That’s when the neighbors realized something was terribly wrong.
The boy was 5 years old, a kindergartner and the son of a man who now lay dead from an overdose of fentanyl in his girlfriend’s house in Allegany County. The girlfriend was dead, too, also from an overdose. It is believed the couple had died some 48 hours before their bodies were discovered on that Monday last year, when the boy went looking for food.
David Cox, superintendent of schools in Allegany County, told Congress this story on Wednesday in Washington. He wore a gray suit, a white shirt and bow tie for an appearance before a House education subcommittee. He sat next to Dr. Leana Wen, the Baltimore health commissioner, who was also there to testify about the opioid crisis.
While Wen spoke of the epidemic in the city — overdose deaths at a rate of two per day; addicts dying while they wait too long for treatment; no funds for new purchases of Naloxone, the overdose antidote — Cox gave a glimpse of how opioid addiction has affected his rural community in western Maryland, 140 miles from Baltimore. He did not spare details.
The county, Cox said, assesses the learning needs of children before they enter the Allegany schools. Twice during visits to the homes of preschoolers, Cox’s staff members encountered small children answering doors because, they said, their mothers were asleep. In fact, in both instances, the women had overdosed. One was dead, Cox said. One was “brought back” with the antidote.
“There are more stories,” Cox told me on Friday, “but I only had five minutes to [testify]. Of course, these are not stories I’m happy to tell. It’s an awful thing to have to tell. But members of Congress need to know the deep impact this [crisis] is having, and not just on those who overdose. Addiction hurts children, too.”
It leaves them with deep emotional scars. It leaves some without parents.
Grandparents — and, in at least one case, a great-grandparent — have taken guardianship of children whose parents died of overdoses in Allegany County, Cox said. Some children have ended up in foster care. In some instances, older siblings have become the primary caregivers.
Cox is a native of Tennessee. His career in education took him to Kansas and Virginia before he was appointed Allegany County superintendent in 2009. He was named Maryland School Superintendent of the Year for 2016 by the Public School Superintendents’ Association. There are about 8,700 children in his school system.
The opioid epidemic, which claimed 59 lives in Allegany County (population 72,000) last year — and another 27 so far this year — has become a grim new challenge for the county’s principals, teachers, school nurses and support staff.
I asked Cox when he and his principals first sensed the reach of the opioid epidemic.
“I would say about five years ago,” he said. “Our district has had a 95 percent [student] attendance rate most of the time. But we started noticing a drop.”
More elementary school students were arriving at school late, or not at all. In assessing preschoolers, Cox’s staff noticed a sharp increase in the number who required special services for behavioral issues. In an effort to explain that increase, or at least suggest a cause, Cox noted this disturbing statistic: Eighteen percent of newborns in Allegany County are in some way drug-affected. And that does not include, Cox noted, children who might have experienced prolonged, prenatal exposure to alcohol.
Add those traumatized by the overdose or overdose death of a parent, and you have a lot of small children in need of special care.
There are 13 elementary schools in Allegany County, and only one behavioral specialist for all of them.
“I could keep three more busy,” Cox said.
Two weeks ago, the president declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency. But, of course, the Trump administration committed no additional funds to fight the epidemic.
In Wen’s testimony, pointed as ever, she said it was “unconscionable” that public health officials are being limited in their efforts to save lives. More funds are “desperately needed” to provide on-demand treatment for addicts, she said, and Congress should expand insurance for mental health services.
Cox had a specific request of Congress: Give him and other superintendents more flexibility in how they can allocate federal funds for disadvantaged children. “Their public school,” Cox said, “is the place where they are most loved, best cared for, where they receive the best nutrition, where they’re the warmest, and are shown the most kindness.” The children of the opioid epidemic are going to need help, and schools might be the best place to start to deal with all the collateral damage.