The Faith Community in Action: A Response to the Opioid Crisis

Broken families, crippling addictions, and tragic deaths: the opioid epidemic has taken an enormous toll on communities throughout the United States. Opioid addiction has been a serious issue in America since the late 1990s, when doctors started prescribing opioid-based painkillers for patients. Initially, opioid abuse primarily affected rural, small-town communities. In recent years, addiction has spread into suburban and urban areas as well. Now, an average of 142 people die every day from opioid-related causes, and the number of people who die of drug overdose in the U.S. every three weeks is equivalent to the number of people who died on 9/11. The opioid epidemic has also had a devastating effect on children and families. When mothers abuse opioids while pregnant, their babies suffer from Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome. These children are often separated from their mothers and sent to foster care, which can lead to physical and emotional withdrawal symptoms. Older children of parents struggling with addiction often end up in foster care as well. As a result, many children are left behind by the opioid crisis, placed in the overcrowded foster system as their parents separately undergo treatment.

Partnerships between government and faith-based organizations offer a glimmer of hope for recovery and restoration, even in states where the opioid epidemic is particularly severe. Arizona is one state that has felt the devastation of the opioid epidemic; last year, 800 Arizonans died from opioid abuse. On June 5, 2017, Governor Doug Ducey of Arizona declared a statewide health emergency to address the opioid epidemic. One year later, Governor Ducey explained the progress that Arizona had made since that declaration during a keynote address at the American Enterprise Institute, “The opioid crisis and foster care families.” Governor Ducey explained several measures, including partnerships between government and faith-based organizations, that Arizona has undertaken to help people suffering from opioid addiction and their children. The state legislature, state government agencies, and the private sector have all been instrumental in helping families affected by the opioid crisis. Governor Ducey also highlighted a particularly impactful member of civil society: the faith-based community. The Arizona Governor’s Office of Youth, Faith, and Family has developed opioid abuse prevention strategies to increase community awareness. In the past year, the office of the Arizona Attorney General awarded $400,600 in grants to community groups, including faith-based organizations, for the purpose of opioid prevention and treatment. During his AEI lecture, Governor Ducey specifically praised Catholic Charities for their work in opioid addiction recovery programs. Additionally, faith leaders throughout Arizona have spoken up from the pulpit, encouraging their congregants to get involved with foster care and childcare.

The opioid epidemic is a complex problem and requires a nuanced response that is attentive not only to the needs of adults, but to the needs of children impacted by the crisis. There is still much disagreement about how to most effectively help children affected by opioids. Some experts believe that expanded foster care is the best course of action, while others advocate for keeping children with their parents as they undergo treatment. However, the Arizona example shows that faith and community-based groups can play an important role alongside government. Oftentimes, faith-based organizations can be more effective than government agencies at meeting unmet needs. As Stanley Carlson-Thies, Founder and Senior Director of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, writes in the book Christians & Politics Beyond the Culture Wars, problems persist when “the poor receive only material benefits, when they need a personal investment in their lives by a Good Samaritan.” Civil society organizations, both faith-based and secular, can fill this need because they often have extensive experience working in the community. These organizations use their first-hand knowledge of local context and clients’ needs to provide valuable, personalized assistance.

Recently, faith-based organizations in other states have also worked to provide care and offer hope in the opioid epidemic. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s office of Faith-Based Coalitions & Collaborative Partnerships has hosted conventions, which in turn spawned numerous Community Leaders and Interfaith Summits. Now, there are 25 coalitions of faith-based treatment programs in cities across every region of the United States. For example, Community Health Interfaith Partnerships (CHIP) is a network of faith-based organizations in Atlanta, Georgia that provides health services. Its partners come from diverse faith traditions and share a common goal of providing physical and mental health care to people in their community. Other faith-based organizations have also partnered with the government to provide rehabilitation and spiritual care. Union Gospel Mission, which receives direct funding from the city of Seattle, is a Christian organization that offers recovery programs for men and women struggling with addiction. Chabad Treatment Center, a Jewish recovery program based in Los Angeles, California, receives indirect funding for patients in substance abuse programs. Across the United States, many churches have also responded to the opioid epidemic by hosting recovery groups that encourage relational ministry.

Oftentimes, faith-based organizations can be more effective than government agencies at meeting unmet needs.

Through programs like these, faith-based and community-based organizations can play a crucial role in providing care. Yet by themselves, these organizations often lack the vital resources and infrastructure needed to reach the greater community. Therefore, government support is also an important actor in addressing the opioid epidemic. According to the Center for Public Justice Guideline on Government, “Government’s purpose is to uphold a healthy public commons in which the great diversity of human activities – as well as complex social and ecological balances – is maintained for the long-term wellbeing of everyone.” Addressing the opioid crisis is an essential function that the government is charged to carry out. This principle has a Biblical basis; in the book Christians & Politics Beyond the Culture Wars, Stanley Carlson-Thies uses the examples of the godly king in Psalm 72 who “defends the poor, delivers the needy, and crushes the oppressor.” Carlson-Thies also speaks about the importance of government working together with civil society: “Government policies… should go, first of all, to support the institutions and organizations that can… minister directly and personally to people, helping them recover their own accountability.”

Arizona’s progress in addressing the opioid epidemic can serve as an example for other states as well as the federal government. President Trump has declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency and has recently authorized an additional $6 billion in the federal budget to support substance abuse and mental health programs, including opioid addiction treatment in particular. It may be possible for states to replicate Arizona’s progress, but it will require a great deal of bipartisan cooperation. In Arizona, state legislators held a special session, then passed a package which designated a $10 million budget for addiction treatment. With astounding cooperation, they worked quickly; the Arizona Opioid Epidemic Act was introduced on a Monday and passed on a Thursday. With sufficient funding and cooperation, other states may be able to implement similar programs.

As Christians, the opioid epidemic is an issue that should command our attention. Matthew 25:50 says, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” Our brothers and sisters are suffering from addiction and broken families.

Government and civil society must continue to work together towards innovative solutions that lead to healing and hope.

-Nicole Kennedy is a Legal Fellow with the Center for Public Justice (CPJ). She contributes to two different initiatives at CPJ: Sacred Sector and the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance (IRFA). Nicole is a law student at the University of California, Irvine and an alumna of Pepperdine University.