It's hard to pick up a newspaper today without seeing headlines about the epidemic of opioid drug abuse - from prescription pain relievers like Percocet and Vicodin to heroin. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, 259 million drug prescriptions were written for opioids in 2012 - enough to give every American adult their own bottle of pills. More alarming is the fact that drug overdose has become the leading cause of accidental death in the US with over 47,00 lethal overdoses in 2014 - close to 19,000 of those deaths were related to prescription pain relievers and more than 10,000 to heroin.
With opioid drug abuse becoming as much a problem in small towns and rural areas as in urban centers and cutting across demographic lines, it's not surprising that its effects are increasingly being felt in divorce courts.
Admitting that you have a substance abuse problem and doing the hard work of getting sober can be one of the biggest challenges anyone can face in life. But imagine that you're trying to become sober while going through a divorce where children are involved, and the challenge becomes exponentially more difficult and potentially heartbreaking.
In my practice as a divorce attorney, I have certainly seen a dramatic increase in the number of cases that involve substance abuse by one parent or the other over the last 10 years. For the non-addicted parent, the priority often comes down to self-preservation and re-establishing a safe home environment for the children. Frequently this involves trying to limit custody and interaction with the other parent.
What can the parent struggling with addiction do to avoid losing or severely restricting parental rights? The first thing is to be honest with your attorney about the extent and duration of your problem with drugs and/or alcohol. You can be sure that your soon-to-be-ex will not hesitate to reveal these details to his or her attorney and the court, so you have nothing to gain from trying to hide them and possibly much to lose. It is also critical to choose an attorney experienced in working with clients with addiction issues.
Of course, ultimately the most important thing you have to do is demonstrate that you are getting help to become sober and that you are committed to your recovery.
The gold standard courts use in making custody decisions is what's in the best interest of the child. The court will weigh the potential emotional and physical risks posed to a child in the care of a parent with an untreated addiction to drugs or alcohol. Among the factors that will influence the court's decision are the type of drugs used, the length of time the parent has been using, behaviors associated with drug use - and especially how the behaviors impact parenting, as well as treatment including participation in an outpatient or inpatient rehab or recovery program.
These factors may determine whether the parent is denied the right to share in physical custody, visitation or even the right to make decisions for the child.
For many parents the prospect of being separated from their children represents the "bottom" they need to hit to seek help. Having worked with a number of clients in this situation, we make it a priority to assist them in getting into a recovery program, psychotherapy or other support services. In some cases, we have enlisted the services of a "sober living companion" who helps clients maintain their sobriety. These are all actions that show the court a parent is serious about tackling his or her issues and is able to provide a safe and healthy environment for the child.
The court may decide that a recovering parent be granted only supervised visits with a professional monitor or in a therapeutic setting, or the parent may be required to take drug and alcohol tests with the risk of having custody or visitation suspended or more restricted (e.g., taking away overnights) if he or she tests positive. These requirements may be frustrating or embarrassing - especially if you are in denial, but they pale in comparison with the possibility of losing the ability to be with your child.
It takes courage, strength and patience to recover from addiction while at the same time fighting a custody battle. However, these same qualities are also among the most important you can bring to your job as a parent - which in turn enable you to love, support and serve as a positive role model to your child.