Project SCOPE's Latest Round Focuses On Toddlers, Children Impacted by Opioids

By JoLynne Lyon | December 15, 2022
toddler with enormous brown eyes
Photo by Bess Hamiti

Just a few years ago, the opioid epidemic was a hot topic. News organizations devoted in-depth stories to it. Drug companies lost lawsuits over it. In 2020, Project SCOPE at the Institute for Disability began offering specialized training to professionals and providers working with families of babies who had been impacted by opioid use.

In 2023, after three years of offering specialized and free professional development to those frontline professionals, another round of Project SCOPE training will be available in Utah. This time, the focus is on the epidemic’s effects on toddlers and school-aged children. And while opioid abuse is less of a hot topic, Utah State University professionals agree its effects are still very much with us as a society. The children exposed to opioids in utero years ago may still experience the effects of neonatal abstinence syndrome and neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome, which can continue into their school years.

Project SCOPE (Supporting Children of the Opioid Epidemic) is a national training initiative intended to raise provider knowledge and confidence in supporting families impacted by opioid use. The training sessions are free, and they allow participants from many disciplines to come together to learn from experts—and each other. In much of rural Utah, people must travel long distances to receive services. Providers can also feel some isolation, practicing far from their peers. Professionals including pediatricians, developmental psychologists, speech and language pathologists, occupational therapists and social workers may all be involved in some aspect of support for children and families impacted by opioid use. Project SCOPE is designed to bring them together.

“I still think there is tremendous work that needs to be done to help all of us understand systems and how we can support each other,” said Janel Preston, an IDRPP project coordinator who leads Project SCOPE.

Utah was never immune from the ravages of the opioid epidemic, but it was most keenly felt in Carbon and Emery counties. “For years and years, Carbon and Emery County have been losing the most people to opioid overdose compared to the entire state and the nation,” said Dr. Ashley Yaugher, a professional practice extension assistant professor of health and wellness at USU. Her focus is Carbon and Emery counties. “We actually lead the state, unfortunately, in opioid overdose deaths.”

The opioid crisis appears to be easing, she said. (It may be supplanted with stimulant abuse, like meth—but that is a whole other blog topic.) And Carbon and Emery County now have more resources available locally, including a detox center.

But toddlers statewide who were exposed to opioids before they were born continue to be more likely to experience developmental delays, including challenges in behavior, learning and problem-solving, motor skills, sensory processing, speech and vision. Utah children who are diagnosed with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome qualify for early intervention services like those provided by IDRPP’s Up to 3 in Northern Utah and Southeast Early Intervention in Carbon, Emery and Grand counties.

While early intervention can help a child progress, a lot of ground can be lost if it is not followed up with continued support as the child grows, Preston said. “One of the cool things in our second series [in 2021] is we opened it up to medical professionals, as well as early childhood providers.” The medical providers saw why it was so important to keep following up with families of children diagnosed with NAS and NOWS, asking questions during follow-up visits.

“By training and helping early childhood professionals understand the importance of identifying opioid or substance abuse and the issues that come with it, you can help professionals identify what services are needed, what providers need and what families need throughout our state,” Preston said.

But some families don’t ask for services for fear that if they reveal the opioid abuse, they may lose their children. “Anytime you’re dealing with families that are worried about children being taken away, it’s kind of tightrope-walking, realizing that you are there to support the family but you’re also required to report abuse or neglect if you have seen that, or even if you suspect it,” Preston said. “It’s hard for the families, too, because they’re worried about self-identifying.”

The Division of Child and Family Services has made some changes in their reporting system, Preston said, slowly progressing away from punishing drug use to providing support. They no longer automatically remove children from the home if parents are seeking treatment. But Preston and Yaugher agree, society has some distance to go in the quest to address addiction.

“There are a lot of negative resources, like punishment and punitive resources that are out there for people who get caught with medications or substances,” Yaugher said. “And so there's not a lot out there for recovery, treatment and prevention. … It's a substance use disorder, which is a chronic condition. It's not going to go away overnight. It requires treatment, and for a lot of people, lifelong treatment.”

“I think the community has a long way to go to understand that substance abuse and addiction are mental health concerns, not just a choice,” said Preston.

Providers can register now for the next round of Project SCOPE sessions.


The CDC Milestone Tracker App (Click for information and links to the app in the Apple and Google Play store).

The Project SCOPE website includes a link where you can register. You can also find resources and view recordings of past sessions.

Up to 3 Early Intervention provides services to children and families in Cache, Rich and Box Elder Counties.

Southeast Early Intervention provides services to children and families in Carbon, Emery and Grand counties.

Find an early intervention program anywhere in Utah.

Opioid overdose death rates in Utah, 2017-2019 (USU Extension)

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