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
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
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
"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
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. …