'Parenting is Prevention' Billboard Removed After Successful Social Media Campaign

By Zachary Siegel 07/11/16

Brenda Stewart, founder of The Addict's Parents United, led the charge to remove the billboard, which claims parents have the power to prevent their child's addiction. 

'Parenting is Prevention' Billboard Removed After Successful Social Media Campaign
via Brenda Stewart

Last week, The Fix covered a billboard campaign in Utah that called for everyone to carry naloxone, the drug that reverses opioid overdoses. That message was clear, simple, and because of its compassionate pragmatism, went viral.  

Enter a campaign that went viral for the wrong reasons. A billboard in Frederick County, Maryland, sponsored by their Health Department, received harsh criticism from parent-activists who have lost children to substance use disorder. On the billboard read the phrase “Parenting is Prevention,” which many parents read as a stigmatizing sentiment. It left many wondering, “So, I need to parent better?” 

A Change.org petition calling to take the billboard down garnered over 3,000 signatures in just a few days. Many of the signatories are parents who have lost a child to overdose. The petition was created by Brenda Stewart, founder of the group The Addict's Parents United


The now-removed billboard (Photo: Brenda Stewart)

“Parenting is Prevention” is an oft-cited phrase used as anti-drug messaging aimed at parents. In 2013, Frances Harding, director of SAMHSA’s Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, wrote a blog post entitled “Parenting is Prevention,” which concluded that parents “have the power to prevent substance use." 

“Wow, I never knew I had such power,” Martine Tate said in a comment, sarcastically. “If I had that kind of power my daughter would still be alive.” Tate’s daughter, Valerie, died at the age of 36 from complications with substance use disorder. 

The phrase “Parenting is Prevention” implicitly blames parents for their child’s addiction, Tate told The Fix during an interview. “We wouldn't treat a parent that way with any other illness.”

Marilee Odendahl, who lost her son Ian to a heroin overdose in 2007, called the sign “reprehensible.” Echoing Tate’s feeling, Odendahl asked, “Would Maryland's Frederick County Health Department blame the parents of children who fell victims to other conditions and diseases?” 

“Implying that a lack of parenting will lead to substance abuse is tired, inaccurate, and ignorant stigmatization,” Odendahl added. 

Both Odendahl and Tate are right, according to the research. One widely cited review of the literature from 2003 concluded parental education alone is not an effective means to reduce or prevent substance use or misuse. 

But on July 11, three days after the petition was started, the Frederick County Health Department issued an apology, saying it will take down the billboard. They wrote, “We have heard your comments and concerns regarding the billboard message and, again, apologize for any hurt it may have unintentionally caused.” 

Dozens of commenters expressed their excitement over the billboard being taken down. But most importantly, their voices were heard. Activists-1 Billboard-0.

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.