Generation Orphan: How Drug Addiction Has Impacted a Growing Number of Utah Students
WEST JORDAN, Utah — When Alyssa Woodward accepted her diploma at West Jordan High School’s graduation last spring, her parents weren’t in the audience cheering for her. They’ve both been out of the picture since she started kindergarten.
“I was living with my mom and all throughout that time, she was in jail,” said Woodward. “Every night I was at a different house. I never remember staying at the same house.”
After bouncing around from her mom’s friends and sometimes strangers, she eventually came to live with her aunt.
Drugs dictated her childhood.
The same was true for Hailey Bartlett, who recently graduated from Valley High School in South Jordan.
“As far as I can remember, my mom was on drugs and my dad was too. He’s actually in jail on his way to prison,” Bartlett said.
These teenagers are part of a troubling trend in Utah high schools. A growing number of students are raising themselves because their parents are dead, in jail or out of the picture, due to drug addiction.
“I promise you every single public school, even down to elementary schools have stories just like this,” said Sharon Jensen, principal of Valley High School in Jordan School District.
None of the major school districts along the Wasatch Front track data on “drug orphans,” but anecdotally, they all indicated they’ve seen an increase just in the last five years.
Davis, Jordan, Canyons, Alpine and Granite districts say this situation used to exist in a handful of lower income schools. Now there are between five and 20 “drug orphans” in every school, especially high schools. And these students aren’t casualties of the opioid epidemic. They came of age during the meth era.
Administrators, district specialists and education foundations are working to help meet the needs of these students by providing counseling, school food pantries and school laundry facilities.
“The effect over time and how it puts the child behind is cumulative,” Jensen said.
Even so, many of these students show enough perseverance to graduate and get jobs that will sustain them through college or into adulthood.
“The thought of not graduating was motivating itself to keep going,” said William, a student who didn’t want us to use his last name. He recently graduated from Taylorsville High School.
His father died, partly from the effects of drugs and his mother was addicted and too unstable to live with. He moved around with relatives, friends and then during his senior year, moved out on his own.
He started high school with AP classes, but working to pay his own expenses almost interfered with graduation. He’s now working on his electrician certification and saving money to buy tools.
Bartlett is working full time as a dental assistant and raising her three-year-old daughter Abigail.
“I got pregnant at 13 and had my daughter at 14,” said Bartlett.
She wasn’t on track to graduate at all, until she transferred to an alternative high school that provided daycare and a flexible schedule.
She admits she struggles, and got emotional as she shared how she tries to provide a better childhood for her daughter than the one she had, while technically still a child herself.
“I want to be able to give her what she wants… I want to be a better mom than what I had,” Bartlett said.
And that’s not easy when she can’t afford stable housing. She’s moved three times in the last year. For now, she’s staying with her boyfriend’s grandmother, which she considers a blessing.
“I feel like people are going to tell me I’m a bad mom because I can’t give her a place to go,” Bartlett said between tears. “Sometimes I get super overwhelmed and I can’t handle her because of it.”
They keep going.
One thing all three teens have in common – they don’t want to continue the tradition of their parents.
“Your parents do drugs, you do drugs, and you have to learn to break the cycle,” said William.
They can’t afford to lament the childhood they missed.
“It’s still hard, there’s no way to sugarcoat it. It’s hard,” said Woodward. “It does suck sometimes, but I’m still grateful for how my life turned out. It could have been a lot worse.”
Woodward got a job out of high school as a certified nursing assistant.
Through the struggle, they work—and hope—for better futures, for themselves and the next generation.
As Bartlett pushes her daughter on a swing at the park, she resolves to teach her child life lessons she’s now living.
“That even though there are hard things in life, as long as you work hard and have a good attitude, nothing is impossible,” said Bartlett.
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