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Drugs’ Ugly Legacy: Healing Families Saves Kids

The crackdown on public marijuana smoking that Mayor Giuliani announced Tuesday is only one part of his continuing campaign against drug use and drug trading in the city.

New Yorkers should applaud the mayor’s relentless efforts. Drug abuse poisons not only the users, but their family members – especially children – creating legacies of degradation and violence.

A case that broke into the headlines just before Election Day was a horrifying example of this. Twin 13-year-old boys – seventh-graders and barely 5 feet tall – were charged with raping and robbing a 40-year-old neighbor in front of her 2-year-old.

All violent acts committed by kids reflect psychological, familial, economic and community influences. But one factor in this family’s past is worthy of emphasis: Both parents allegedly had drug-abuse histories.

A parent’s substance abuse affects children in many ways:

Trust in the world is shattered as a parent’s addictive behavior becomes impulsive, egocentric and unpredictable.

Fear, anger and hate become the centerpiece of the family’s emotional life.

With the lack of a stable, secure parental figure, the child becomes the parent and prematurely takes on adult characteristics, often with negative consequences – for example, early sexual behavior.

Anger and violence in the parent’s addictive lifestyle become part of the child’s world and can become the vehicle for expressing emotional pain and deprivation.

How can society deal with such tragedies? Identifying a family in trouble is only the start. Coordinated drug treatment services are essential.

Unfortunately, social policy has swung between protecting children by removing them from dangerous family situations and a belief that a nuclear family – even a troubled one – is the best place for a child to grow. The twins experienced just this damaging seesawing between their parental home and foster care.

There is another way. For almost 20 years, a residential drug treatment model pioneered by Odyssey House in New York City has effectively treated substance-abusing parents and their children in a setting where protection of the child and preservation of the family work hand in hand.

For up to two years, drug abusing parents and their children live together in a highly structured, carefully supervised residence. Parenting-skills workshops focus on teaching parents what to expect from their children. Counselors teach empathic, nurturing ways of handling challenging situations.

Despite the program’s proven success and cost-effectiveness (about $15,000 per family, per year, compared with $13,000 for one child in foster care), the number of such family centers nationwide can be counted on both hands. We can do better.

The mayor’s crackdown on public smoking of marijuana undoubtedly will make the streets feel safer for families. But to be most effective, he might combine his efforts with the treatment providers, educators and community leaders who spend their days encouraging drug abusers to get the help they need.

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