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The Boy in the Back Seat

Updated: Sep 12, 2020

By Jessica Hulsey Nickel

There is a lot of backlash and discussion over a recent photo posted by the East Liverpool, Ohio Police Department of a couple allegedly high on heroin in their car, unconscious, with a small boy in the back seat. I understand how angry some are. They are worried this photograph will increase the stigma surrounding addiction and shame people from seeking help. I also understand the questions. Were the parents offered treatment? What services are available for that little boy? Finally, I understand some of the frustration with law enforcement. What was their intention in posting this photo? Regardless of how we personally respond to the photo, I hope we can take a step back and look at this event from a point of empathy for everyone involved – the child, the parents and law enforcement-- and not just for those in this photo but for the thousands of people suffering in communities across our country.

First, we should have empathy for the parents in this photo, and for all parents suffering from addiction. Addiction is a brain disease. In a very rough summary, the brain malfunction rewires the brain to re-prioritize the basic survival priorities we as humans, as mammals, have. Now before water, food, shelter, and taking care of our young, our brain misbelieves it's the heroin, prescription drugs or other drug that is most important for survival. The drug(s) gain primacy.  For all parents out there, I hope this can be a lesson on the power and devastation of addiction. It can transplant the most dominant priority that we have as a parent-- to care for one’s children. We should feel heartbreak and compassion ---not blame--because these heartbreaking moments and photos are a symptom of a debilitating, yet treatable, disease.

And we should feel empathy for our law enforcement. Our first responders are on the front line of what is truly an epidemic --129 people dying each day of overdoses. 129 people. Every day our police, our EMTs, our firefighters, our ERs, and our medical examiners come upon horrific scenes and cases, break terrible news to loved ones, administer Narcan (although not always in time) and find children and infants unattended, neglected, hurt. We haven’t really taken a look at how this impacts law enforcement and first responders, but we should. We need to provide better options and interventions as law enforcement continue to be there first for our communities, but too often without the necessary tools and interventions at their disposal. As for the little boy and all of the children he represents, they are perhaps the most vulnerable victims in this epidemic. We must have empathy and compassion and demand action.   I was that child in the photo once upon a time, lost and neglected because of parents who suffered from substance use disorder. It was not an easy life -- instability, neglect, hunger, foster care. I can attest firsthand that there is hope to do better for our families impacted by the heroin epidemic. There are strategies and services and ways we can intervene. I hope when we think of him, we think, “What can I do? How can we organize and respond to provide support and services for those with substance use disorders and their children to bring recovery to the entire family?” For me this photo means that we can all do better -- for our family members who need treatment and recovery support, for our children who are the most vulnerable in this epidemic, and for our first responders who are so directly impacted by this each day in our neighborhoods. For support resources around prevention, treatment, recovery, law enforcement strategies and helping children with parents suffering from substance use disorders, visit

Jessica began working in prevention at 15 years old through an anti-drug coalition in southern California. The next chapters included an appointment by President Bill Clinton to serve on the Drug-Free Communities Commission, serving as a legislative aid in the U.S. House of Representatives, and work to pass and fund the Second Chance Act to help individuals returning home from prison and jail. In 2015, Jessica founded the Addiction Policy Forum to help families and patients struggling with the disease of addiction. Frustrated by the lack of progress in improving outcomes for those individuals and families struggling, she started the nonprofit with $13,000 from her own savings account and long hours at the dining room table. Read more about Jessica Hulsey Nickel.


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