Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito. 


“We have to change the conversation so that those who are suffering feel freer to talk about their circumstances and receive treatment,” Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito said to a roomful of early educators and staff members from home visiting and early intervention programs who were all there to participate in a groundbreaking training session on the opioid crisis.

This was the first of six training programs that will be held across the state in an effort to reach 600 professionals who work with young children. It’s also a sad but necessary recognition that the opioid crisis takes a toll on infants, some of whom are born addicted to opioids, as well as on toddlers and young children whose parents struggle with addiction.

Massachusetts has been hit hard by this crisis. According to the state’s Opioid epidemic website:

“Opioid-related deaths in the state were more than four times higher in 2015 than in 2000.” Massachusetts’ death rate has “surpassed the national average, with an especially sharp rise in the last two years.”


Training session participants


The toll on children:

“With opioids now killing more than 130 people a month in Massachusetts, and many hospitals inundated with nonfatal overdoses, children are often collateral damage,” the Boston Globe reported last year.

“Some end up orphaned, living with relatives, or in foster care. Many are born with an array of symptoms, such as birth defects and developmental problems, that occur in babies exposed to opiates in the womb. Others are spared physical or mental difficulties, but suffer the consequences of neglectful parenting by mothers and fathers struggling with drug abuse.”

Tuesday’s training session was run by Michelle Lennon, a recovery support worker, and Karen Welford, the former director of the Laconia Family Resource Center. And the goal of the session was to help prepare early childhood professionals to participate more effectively in helping children and parents who are struggling with opioids.


Karen Welford


One key lesson that Lennon and Welford shared: change your language. Talking to struggling families about “substance use disorder” instead of addiction or substance abuse is a small step toward that clearing away the stigma that can block people from getting help.

“We have a tendency to blame the victim of the disease,” Lennon said.



Lennon and Welford also discussed:

• what opioids are

• the effects opioids have on the brain

• neonatal abstinence syndrome: which is the withdrawal that babies who have been exposed to opioids in-utereo can go through during their first days of life

• the stages of change and the stages of recovery, and

• how to implement effective strategies to support families who are affected by substance abuse

Welford said that taking a two-generation approach, helping parents and children, is crucial.


Michelle Lennon


“Recovery is really prevention for the next generation,” Lennon added. She also emphasized the importance of providing trauma-informed care, which acknowledges that children and parents may have faced or be facing numerous adverse experiences.

Welford and Lennon shared a slide that said: “You may be the only cheerleader in a parenting person’s life, and building capacity in parents is a key part of our job.”

The bottom line: early education professionals have to know the facts about opioids, understand the dynamics of recovery, and handle families with abundant amounts of compassion and kindness, anticipating that people with substance use disorder will not always act in their own best interests.

It’s a huge amount of work that can seem overwhelming, but Massachusetts is taking a team approach. Even the training session itself has the support of the public and private sectors. Funding for the session came from the Department of Early Education and Care and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The training partners were the Department of Public Health and the Massachusetts Head Start State Collaboration Office (HSSCO). And Strategies for Children secured a meeting space at the Boston-based law firm Goulston and Storrs.

There are also a growing number of resources available, including:

The Journey Project: “an interactive web-based resource for pregnant and parenting women with substance use disorders,” launched by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health

• In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics shared research which found that “a key to easing the opioid withdrawal symptoms of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) is to ensure parents can spend plenty of time at the baby’s bedside during treatment.”

• Lennon and Welford cite this article, “Alternative treatment approach for neonatal abstinence syndrome may shorten hospital stay.”

• And they point to The Strengthening Families Program, an evidence-based family skills program.

To attend one of the remaining training sessions on the opioid crisis, contact Carol Nolan. She is the MA HSSCO Director and the associate commissioner for Strategic Partnerships at theDepartment of Early Education and Care. She can be reached at 617 988-7816 or

As Lieutenant Governor Polito said at the training session:

“This is a work in progress for all of us, and we need everyone to be involved in the work.”

Photos: Alyssa Haywoode for Strategies for Children
Video: Massachusetts Department of Public Health