Stacey Dimas watches her son’s football game with her fiancé, Ariel Casper, at Ithaca High School on Friday, October 28th, 2022.

Stacey Dimas (right) and her fiancé watch her son’s football game at Ithaca High School. (Ryan Young / Cornell University)

Working to Reunite Families Fractured by Opioids

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How Cornell researchers and Cooperative Extension staff—plus an alum who’s a Tompkins County judge—are making a difference

This story has been condensed from a feature in the Cornell Chronicle.

By Susan Kelley

When her opioid addiction was at its worst, Stacey Dimas was terrified her sons, 3 and 10, would find her dead from an overdose in the family bathroom. She wrote them each a letter 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 lost custody of her kids in 2015, after her mother and mother-in-law reported her to Child Protective Services for neglect. The boys went to live with her in-laws.

Dimas was referred to Tompkins County Family Treatment Court—whose founding judge is Arts & Sciences alumnus John Rowley ’82.

Judge John C. Rowley ’82, in the Tompkins County Courthouse on Thursday, October 20, 2022.
Judge Rowley in court in Ithaca.

Dimas and her children 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 opioid crisis’s 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.

With CCE’s data-informed guidance at its core, the Tompkins County Family Court has become a model for New York State and the nation.

Since 2018, the court has been one of eight peer-learning courts around the country, offering guidance to other family treatment courts from West Virginia to Guam, through a program run by Children and Family Futures, a child-welfare nonprofit.

“As a society, we haven’t thought a lot about what it means to be a parent who’s struggling with opioid addiction and what supports are needed for parents to be able to thrive in that role,” says Rachel Dunifon, the Rebecca Q. and James C. Morgan Dean of the College of Human Ecology (CHE) and a co-principal investigator on the project, along with Anna Steinkraus of CCE Tompkins County.

“We can’t look at parents in isolation and look at the kids in isolation. We have to think about them together, and what they need as a family.”

As a society, we haven’t thought a lot about what it means to be a parent who’s struggling with opioid addiction.

Rachel Dunifon, dean of Human Ecology

In 2017, opioids were hitting families hard in Tompkins County, says Steinkraus, who coordinates CCE’s parenting programs in the county.

“They were being drawn into social services, generally more around [child] neglect, because their involvement with opioid use was making it hard to be focused on parenting,” she says.

The Opioids and Family Life Project, housed in CHE’s Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research, represents a new model of research because it was created collaboratively with the CCE Tompkins County team, Dunifon says.

Stacey Dimas poses for a portrait in DeWitt Park on Friday, November 4th, 2022.
Dimas in Ithaca’s Dewitt Park.

“Their on-the-ground experiences allowed us to conduct really important groundbreaking scientific research that’s based on what’s happening in our community,” she says.

“It makes the work we do more relevant, more nuanced, and more impactful toward our ultimate goal, which is improving the lives of people in our local community, in New York State, and around the world.”

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The researchers have found opioids affect one in 12 New Yorkers, or more than 8%, directly or indirectly, through their immediate family members. They also found that since 2010, over a 10-year period, the rate of both opioid misuse and family members being affected increased by more than 100%.

And they’ve identified an association between rising rates of opioid misuse and child maltreatment in New York State. From 2006–16 those rates were geographically concentrated in Western and Central New York, the Finger Lakes region, and the Southern Tier, which includes Tompkins County and Cornell’s Ithaca campus.

A court focused on drug treatment

The opioid epidemic is the main reason the number of cases in the county’s Family Treatment Court has more than doubled, from 30 in 2001 (when the court was created) to 75 so far in 2022, says Rowley.

About 75% of neglect cases involve substance abuse, most often opioids; parents frequently start out misusing prescription drugs and then switch to heroin because it is cheaper, he says.

“What we’re most concerned about is … it’s a complete disconnect from your environment,” Rowley says of opioids’ effects. Parents who misuse opioids “are not generally functioning in any significant way. Certainly, the emotional engagement is impaired.”

The biggest effect? “Their addiction becomes their primary relationship,” he says. “And that means everything else is secondary”—including their children.

Their addiction becomes their primary relationship. And that means everything else is secondary.

Judge John Rowley ’82

Parents who misuse opioids might drop off their children with someone and fail to come back when they said they would, Rowley says. They’re unable to get their kids to school. They don’t give their children enough food or emotional support.

Sometimes they use harsh discipline. Older children may take care of siblings in their parents’ absence or take on household chores beyond their capacity.

Parents often think their kids are unaware of their opioid misuse. But children do know, Rowley says. “[They’ll say] ‘I could tell Mom was talking fast.’ ‘Mom was in the bathroom for a really long time.’ ‘Dad really tried to hurry us through dinner. Whenever he tries to put us to bed fast, we know something’s going on.’”

CCE programming “is an extremely important resource to us,” Rowley says. “It’s because these evidence-based programs, they actually work. Our parents experience it, we experience it. So we just keep building on that.”

Judge John C. Rowley ’82, and Mindy Thomas discuss Family Treatment Court cases in the Tompkins County Courthouse on Thursday, October 20, 2022.
Rowley with a colleague in his chambers.

When Dimas started Family Treatment Court, she was living out of her car, had no friends, no family. She and her husband had split up.

“They say addiction is a disease of isolation,” Dimas says. “And I absolutely believe that to be true … The only things I had, when I left detox for the second time, were the clothes that I took to detox and the blanket that I stole.”

Dimas was reunited with her children in 2016. She and her husband divorced. She has been sober for more than seven years, since February 2015. And she mentors others in recovery.

Today, she is employed as senior adviser for People for the American Way, a progressive advocacy organization, where she focuses on reimagining public safety. She is engaged to be remarried. She has a bachelor’s degree.

“People always ask, ‘How did you do it?’” she says. “I realized I needed help. And I asked for it. And lastly, I accepted it.”

Top: Stacey Dimas (right) and her fiancé watch her son’s football game at Ithaca High School. All photos and video by Ryan Young / Cornell University.

Published November 28, 2022

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