Growing up with a parent who has a substance use disorder can have a negative impact on children, but Camp Mariposa is working to make a difference for affected kids.

Tiera*, a 12-year-old from Tampa, Florida, is in her middle school’s band, enjoys traveling across the country with her Girl Scout troop, and likes singing, dancing, and science. Though she is only in the sixth grade, Tiera can’t remember how old she was when she was told her mother has a substance use disorder.

“I was really little,” she said. “I don’t know a lot of things, because they say that I’m too young to know.”

Tiera learned about substance use and addiction through her school’s “drug-free” education days, so the topic of substance misuse is not foreign to her. But according to Tiera, she doesn’t know everything about her mom’s addiction.

“That bothers me,” she said. “I don’t think I’m too young to know.”

While Tiera doesn’t know all the details about her mom, she said she could recognize when her mom was using drugs, because she would not seem like herself.

As a result of Tiera’s mother’s substance use, Tiera was placed into kinship foster care with her grandfather while her mother was receiving treatment at WestCare, an organization in Florida that offers various services like detox, residential and outpatient treatment, re-entry assistance, and transitional housing, among others. Her mother entering care was precipitated by an arrest.

Tiera said she was sad in the beginning, but that her mother’s substance use has become normal to her. Over the years, she said, she has just gotten used to it.

“To be honest — I don’t wanna be mean — but I don’t know if it’s ever gonna stop,” she said. “So I just don’t worry about it that much anymore.”

“I don’t know a lot of things, because they say that I’m too young to know.”

— Tiera, 12-year-old Camp Mariposa participant

A common problem

Research has shown that stories like Tiera’s are not uncommon. An annual average of 8.7 million children in the United States lives in a home with at least one parent who has a substance use disorder, according to a 2017 report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

A study conducted by Cambridge University Press shows that children who grow up with a substance use disorder in their household are more than twice as likely to develop a substance use disorder of their own. They are also at an increased risk of behavioral problems, mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, and suicide, and poverty.

Among the nearly 2.7 million children who grow up with at least one parent in prison, more than half have lived with a parent who has a substance use disorder. One in 10 has experienced the death of a parent.

And while all children who have parents with a substance use disorder are affected by their parents’ condition, children of Black parents often suffer more consequences because of disproportionate drug arrests and sentencing for people of color.

The Drug Policy Alliance found that 80% of people in federal prison and 60% of people in state prison for drug offenses are Black or Latino. Studies also state that prosecutors are two times as likely to pursue mandatory minimum sentencing for individuals who are Black rather than individuals who are white for the same offense.

“The war on drugs is really a system of oppression — it’s about criminalizing them,” said harm reduction psychologist Barry Lessin. “And substance use is about structural problems in our society, poverty, gender, and race discrimination.”

Discrimination against people of color directly impacts the communities and families they are being taken away from, according to the study. A study done by the Department of Research and Development for the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania showed that there are currently 4,755 individuals in prison in Philadelphia, and 67.3% of those individuals are Black.

The Drug Policy Alliance also found that one in nine Black children in the United States has an incarcerated parent, and Parents Behind Bars found that two times as many Black children as white children experience parental incarceration.

The Health Federation of Philadelphia conducted the Philadelphia Urban ACE Study, which surveyed 2,000 Philadelphians on Adverse Childhood Experiences. That study found that 35% of the individuals surveyed grew up with a substance use disorder in their household.

For Black children growing up in a household that is impacted by substance use, the odds are seemingly stacked against them. Substance use prevention for youth has been a focus of many activists, parents, and schools across the country.

“You hear all these horrible stories about kids impacted by substance use disorders, but not a program like ours that is breaking the cycle."

— Brian Maus, Director of addiction and mentoring programs at Eluna

Healing affected children at Camp Mariposa

While experts say that decriminalization of possession, prison deferrals for individuals with substance use disorders, and general drug policy reform can all contribute to solving the issues surrounding the war on drugs and how they affect children, there are efforts that work to serve and heal children affected by parents with substance use disorder, like the work that is being done by the Eluna Network through their program Camp Mariposa.

The Eluna Network (formerly known as the Moyer Foundation) is a non-profit that was founded in 2007 to support children and families impacted by addiction and loss. One of their programs, called Camp Mariposa, is a yearlong camp aiming to break the generational cycle of addiction for youth ages nine through 12 who are impacted by substance use in their homes. The camp takes place on four weekends throughout the year in April, June, August, and November.

The camp is funded by corporate, government, and individual donations, as well as revenue from partner events, special events, and investments. Free for all who attend, camp-goers participate in typical camp activities, while also doing education and support exercises led by mental health professionals and trained mentors. Since 2007, the camp has served 5,840 children. In 2018, Camp Mariposa served 1,542 campers across 12 locations in the United States. The closest location to Philadelphia is in Quakertown, Pennsylvania.

Campers can be enrolled in a number of ways, including by their caregivers, referrals from school psychologists, therapists, social workers, foster care agencies, and other treatment programs.

“You hear all these horrible stories about kids impacted by substance use disorders, but not a program like ours that is breaking the cycle, that is giving kids skills, that is creating this amazing support community for kids, and changing lives,” said Brian Maus, the director of addiction and mentoring programs at Eluna.

And so far, Camp Mariposa has seen positive results. The camp recently finished a three-year research project with Louisiana State University that analyzed its effectiveness in preventing children from using substances and getting involved in criminal activity.

Using application data from 2016 and survey data from 2017, the study looked at 570 youth who attended Camp Mariposa camps nationally during the two-year time frame. The data represents 11 of the 12 camp locations, camp-goers ages nine through 12, and teenage peer mentors who have previously been through the program.

Though the findings are not yet published, Maus said the study showed that 86% of youth 11 and younger did not have friends that drank, and 90% did not have more than a few sips of beer, wine, or other drinks containing alcohol.

For those ages 12 and older, the study found that the figure for alcohol consumption was also 90%, while 96% have not smoked marijuana, and 90% had not used any substances to get high. The study also found that, across all ages, 96% said they had not been in trouble with the police.

As for 2018, 94% of the surveyed group have not used any substance to get high, and 98% have had no involvement with police and the juvenile justice system.

According to Maus, one of the biggest impacts this program has is that children are able to express feelings they may not be able to express at home. Feelings of isolation, anger, and sadness can be freely expressed, processed, and understood at Camp Mariposa, he said.

“One of the core organizing principles is to break down the rules in an addicted family,” Maus said. “And those are: don’t talk, don’t trust, and don’t feel.”

Camp Mariposa breaks down those barriers and creates a safe space to share feelings through guidance and openness from peer mentors, as well as therapeutic activities, Maus said. Teens who have gone through the program are able to come back and serve as peer mentors to the kids currently in the program, he added.

“Having the same experience that the younger kids have in the program and outside of the program, they’re really able to connect,” said Maus. “Kids in the program will say that they can talk about things in a way that they know they’re not going to be judged and that they feel safe.”

Tiera attended the Camp Mariposa program in Florida after she learned about the program when she was visiting her mother at WestCare.

“When we went to visit her, [my mom] told us that they were starting a camp,” she said. “She wanted us to go and see how we liked it, so my grandma signed us up for it.”

Tiera said her favorite part is getting to know the other people — both campers and counselors. She has made a lot of friends, and even keeps in touch with some of them over social media. In this way, the camp has especially helped Tiera in handling her feelings about her mother’s substance use disorder.

“Now I know that there’s more people that have been through the same thing,” she said.

“One of the core organizing principles is to break down the rules in an addicted family. And those are: don’t talk, don’t trust, and don’t feel.”

— Brian Maus, Director of addiction and mentoring programs at Eluna

A weekend at Camp Mariposa

For each weekend that the camp is held, it begins on a Friday with icebreaker activities and games as a way of acquainting the kids with each other and the counselors. Come Saturday morning, the campers partake in educational and therapeutic activities, which then transition into typical outdoor camp activities, like canoeing and ropes courses.

“That, for us, is a huge piece. Letting kids be kids,” said Maus. “There [are] educational, therapeutic components to it, but we really want kids to have fun.”

Saturday night is the peak of the camp weekend. Campers and peer and adult mentors have an opportunity to write letters to addiction.

“They can talk about how addiction and substance use disorders have impacted their lives, and then they get to throw it in the fire,” Maus said.

According to Maus, this event is one of the highlights of the camp and is a point of transition for the campers who can symbolically let go of the weight of their troubles for the night. Sunday morning is used to help campers transition from their time at camp back to their daily life at home.

“We call it a family meeting,” Maus said. “Everybody sits around and talks about the weekend, and anything they might be concerned about, within the weekend, but also…pivoting to looking at life outside of the program.”

Most importantly, Maus said, children get to interact, bond, and form friendships with other children who also have a parent with a substance use disorder. This connection shows children that they are not alone in their struggles and are not dealing with this issue in isolation.

“We’ll have kids come to us, saying ‘I didn’t know there were other kids living in a situation like I am,’” said Maus. “Then after they’re there about a year, they’ll start to talk about like, ‘This is the family I wished I had,’ or ‘This is the family I’d been missing for my life.’”

Maus said the organization plans to use the data they’ve collected to help expand the number of camps across the country and into other counties that reach out, and also to better serve the individuals they already have in their programs. Eluna also hopes to expand its targeted demographic.

“This next development of the teen component is huge,” said Maus. “Our folks in Sarasota are interested in looking at how they can work with teens to begin to think about post-high school.”

“Now I know that there’s more people that have been through the same thing."

— Tiera, 12-year-old Camp Mariposa participant

Moving forward for Tiera

While Tiera is unsure of her mother’s future with her substance use disorder, she is sure of what she wants her own future to be like.

“Better than [my] parents and other family members,” she said.

Seeing how her mother acts while using drugs and how having a substance use disorder has impacted her life has motivated Tiera to not go down that same path.

“I don’t think I would do it at all,” she said. “Just because of how it’s affected friends, or their parents, or other family members.”

As for Tiera’s plans for the future, she will be completing a step program to skip the seventh grade and move directly up to eighth. And as an effect of her older sister having a premature baby, Tiera said she has aspirations to go into the medical field.

“I want to be a doctor,” she said. “A neonatal doctor.”

*Names marked with an asterisk are those of people who requested we use their first name only due to the sensitivity of the subject matter.