Helping Children and Families Overcome Legacy of Drug Abuse

Article excerpt

THE human face of what some public health officials say threatens to be a social time bomb can be adorable, if troubling.

There's the doe-eyed two-year-old who wanders among her peers, hands at her sides, uttering no sound.

There's the handsome 10-year-old who tests out in the mentally gifted range, but whose emotional problems - including those stemming from seeing his mother gunned down - keep him out of good schools.

There's the nine-year-old, his irresistable smile beaming beneath Coke-bottle lenses, whose years isolated in a closet cause him to cling to people, wrapping himself around them so insistently his friends run from him.

These children, exposed to drugs and alcohol, either physically before birth or environmentally in the home, are not uncommon in Anacostia, this city's most concentrated district of poverty and drugs.

A generation of these children - between 400,000 and 700,000 born per year nationally, experts estimate - coming of age with severe mental, physical, and social problems constitutes "a social time bomb...a predictable catastrophe," says Dr. Johanna Ferman, chief executive officer of the D.C. Institute for Mental Health.

Healing the whole family - not just the drug-addicted parent in isolation - is the key to preventing that catastrophe. Dr. Ferman's brainchild, the Center for Family Health, a national demonstration project run under the private, non-profit D.C. Institute, implements a new family-centered philosophy in drug treatment and prevention that has implications for the whole social services system.

"If you don't deal with the family, then all your ministerings to children end up being null and void... And the family shows a capacity for responsiveness that isn't often recognized if given adequate support and treatment," says Ferman.

The idea is to unite the family by keeping the parent off drugs, keeping the child in the parent's custody, and minimizing the frustration of poverty while the parent recovers from drugs. The earlier that help arrives in a child's life, says Ferman, the better the chance he or she will successfully finish school and become productive.

To cut red tape, the center offers one-stop shopping for a wide range of services. It supplies transportation, in-home services for coping with the notorious red tape of housing and welfare programs, and teaches such basic skills as budgeting and shopping.

The primary client is considered the child under five affected by drugs. Many exposed to drugs in the womb are said to face a number of medical problems. Likewise, exposure to drug abusers can range from physical and sexual abuse to severe neglect.

The center draws on extended families that can include parents, siblings, grandparents and other family members or foster parents responsible for the child. …