NORTH ADAMS — "I really love my mom and dad," Emily said. "But sometimes it feels like they don't love us."
"Emily" and "Elizabeth" both under 10 years old, live with grandparents. The girls' parents are estranged from the kids, in jail — all as a result of drug addiction.
The girls' names have been changed in this story to protect their identities.
"Could we just tell the world to help people get off drugs?" ask Emily and Elizabeth in unison, expressing their frustration about the shadow that addiction casts over their lives.
In Emily's case, addiction has led to the incarceration of one parent and separation from the other. She likes playing softball and riding motorcycles. Art, gym and music are her favorite school subjects, she said.
Elizabeth's dad is incarcerated, and drugs played a pivotal role in the death of an uncle.
"I remember after (my uncle) died and I was crying in school and my teacher gave me big hugs," she said. "I still cry; I cry every day."
Elizabeth likes math and riding all-terrain vehicles. She and Emily share a love of hip-hop dance. Both visit their fathers in correctional facilities.
"I go and I can sit next to (my dad) and we can eat and have hugs," Emily said.
"Hey, no fair!" Elizabeth said. "I can't get a hug and I can't sit next to (my dad)."
The girls' stories illustrate a particularly troubling aspect of the national problem with drug addiction, including the growing opioid problem. Recent data released by the state show that opioid deaths in Berkshire County have increased for the sixth consecutive year. When parents succumb to addiction, young children are left behind. Sometimes grandparents find themselves in the role of parenting again when they take custody of their grandchildren.
"How do you fix what little eyes have seen?" asks North Adams Police Director Michael Cozzaglio.
"How do you fix that? We are fortunate that we don't see a whole lot of that, but we do see it," he said. "And we all have a soft spot for the kids."
Homes touched by addiction are not safe havens for many children, he said.
He said sometimes children are present during a drug raid or when there is an emergency response to an overdose. Police and firefighters now respond to overdose emergencies, as do emergency medical personnel, because all agencies carry the life-saving overdose medication Narcan.
"For many children of tender years, school is the best part of their day," he said. "But more important is family, that's where the core values are. That can be difficult when the police are there and the house is in chaos."
When children are present during emergency overdose situations, the scenes may be heart-breaking.
"It doesn't happen often," said Amalio Jusino, assistant chief of North Adams Ambulance Service, "but one that does stick out is a call where there was a 2-year-old sitting with a bottle of vodka on his lap while Dad was overdosing."
There is tremendous effort to interact with children and stave off negative feelings children may harbor because of arrests, drug raids and separations, Cozzaglio and Jusino said.
There is a program in the works in which city police officers will be purchasing basketball nets and installing them on basketball hoops located at city parks, Cozzaglio said. The cost is expected to be about $150, paid through the department's asset forfeiture account.
A recently announced "Running with the Law" program is geared toward developing positive relationships with youth. Officers present at city schools are there as a resource, he said.
Establishing a positive presence for children can be difficult. Adult behaviors are deteriorating in many cases, he noted.
"The line isn't there anymore," Cozzaglio said, referring to a shift in inhibitions and behavior brought on by addiction. "It's 'Do what you can to who you can' and then it's 'Catch me if you can.' These people often have 3-year-olds, 6-year-olds, at home. We are arresting people and that looks bad in some people's eyes. Kids love their parents and this is a very delicate thing. It's hard on officers, it's hard on all the (emergency service responders) and we are all thinking about the kids."
Affecting three generations
Missing their parents makes them sad, Emily and Elizabeth said. Both said that they attend school-based counseling sessions with other children facing similar situations.
"Olivia" is Elizabeth's grandmother and "Liz" is Emily's grandmother.
"This is affecting three generations," Olivia said. "It's heartbreaking because of my children's addiction and the constant worry about whether they will live to see their children grow up. Will I live to see it? What happens to the grandchildren if something happens to me? We worry, how do we protect our grandchildren?"
"Those are my sentiments," Liz said. "I am fearful for the future. What happens when (the parents) get out? We always have hope, we want them to live, but addiction is a selfish disease and it takes the person you knew away. And the children live in chaos."
Emily and Elizabeth said they know about "hospitals" that treat people with addiction. Both wish there were more such places and that more people could get help.
But they have other thoughts as well.
"I wish there was no drugs, that they would go away," Elizabeth said. "I want my whole family alive. When people talk bad about my family, it hurts my feelings so I wish that wouldn't happen.'
Negative comments about family members are hard to hear and creates sadness, Emily agreed.
"I wish people in my family could just start over," she said. "I wish we could just be together."
"It would be great if drugs were gone and everybody could be happy," she said.
"These girls are older than their years," Olivia said. "They live this."