‘Everything changed’: reuniting families fractured by opioids

When her opioid addiction was at its worst, Stacey Dimas was terrified her sons, 3 and 11, would find her dead from an overdose in the family bathroom. She wrote them each letters with life advice in case they had to carry on without her.

“There’s an extra layer, when you’re using, of incomprehensible demoralization – those are the only words I have to describe it,” Dimas says. “I hated what I saw in the mirror. I didn’t think I was a good parent. In fact, I knew I wasn’t a good parent. And obviously the courts agreed with me.”

Dimas and her husband, who also used opioids, lost custody of their kids in 2015, after her mother and mother-in-law reported them to Child Protective Services for neglect. The boys went to live with her in-laws. Dimas and her husband were referred to Tompkins County Family Treatment Court.

Dimas and her family are among the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers whose lives have been ravaged by opioid abuse. The epidemic spurred Cornell researchers and parent educators to analyze the opiod crisis’ impact on families and assess the efficacy of solutions to treat parents who misuse opioids.

In traditional child welfare courts, parents take longer to start substance abuse treatment, return to drug abuse more quickly and are less likely to reunite with their children. Tompkins County Family Court, which incorporates Cornell programming, follows a therapeutic approach to family reunification. The Tompkins County collaboration inspired an ambitious five-year research program, the Opioids and Family Life Project, launched by Cornell researchers in 2018. The team is evaluating how the court’s use of a parenting class called Strengthening Families, run by Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) Tompkins County, helps strengthen and reunify families fractured by opioids, by teaching them skills from solving problems to coping with anger.

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