Nine hundred and twenty-seven Maine babies came into the world affected by the opioids that circulated through their mothers’ bodies during pregnancy in 2013 alone. One of them was Kendall Chick.

Kendall died in Wiscasset on Dec. 8, just days after her fourth birthday, a result, police say, of blunt-force injuries to her abdomen, believed to have been delivered by her foster mother, Shawna Gatto, who has been charged with murder.

Kendall’s death, along with the suspected child-abuse killing of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy last month in Stockton Springs, is the subject of a legislative probe into the state’s child protective system, to see how it could have failed so badly. It’s important to look at their deaths and understand what went wrong to try to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.

But at least in Kendall Chick’s case, understanding what happened before she was born is also important. It’s not just her death but also her life that they should explore to answer some basic questions about what went wrong. For instance:

• Did Kendall’s mother have access to birth control?

• Was her mother in addiction treatment before or after she gave birth?


• Did her parents get the support they needed to fight a drug habit and care for a small child at the same time?

• Did her mother have any of the co-occurring mental health problems commonly found in people with substance use disorders, and did she have access to care for those problems?

Six years into the opioid epidemic, the problem of drug-affected babies is often misunderstood as primarily an issue of the baby’s health.

That’s part of it, but the bigger problem by far is the environment of the family that the new baby joins. Parents who are driven by a compulsive need for drugs live disordered lives, and are often unable to put their child’s welfare ahead of their own. A baby girl like Kendall, born with an opioid dependency, will overcome withdrawal symptoms much sooner than she can overcome a chaotic home or a mother who is not mentally or physically present.

Although the medical community is virtually unanimous in the opinion that addiction is a chronic disease that responds to treatment, too many policymakers still act as if it were a sign of personal weakness. But even if you think that opioid-dependent people deserve to suffer, their children do not. Every one of the nearly 5,000 drug-affected children born in Maine since 2013 deserves a chance at a healthy life, no matter how badly their parents behaved.

The shortage of treatment beds in Maine has been well established, but when the person who needs treatment is also a mother of a young child, the problem gets much more complicated. A mother can’t just disappear from her baby’s side unless she has extraordinary support. This is what led the Maine Judicial Branch to create family treatment drug courts to oversee parents’ progress in drug treatment when they are involved in child removal proceedings.

Parenting isn’t easy under the best of circumstances, and a parent under the influence of drugs or alcohol is not operating under anything near the best circumstances. According to research by the federal Department of Health and Human Services, children of parents who abuse drugs or alcohol are more likely to experience abuse or neglect. They are less likely to have enough to eat. They are more likely to be placed in foster care, and they stay there longer.

Kendall Chick’s life was short and filled with pain. She deserved better.

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