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Children's Voice Article, September/October 2003

Executive Directions

by Shay Bilchik

One of the more difficult aspects of working at the higher levels of a child welfare organization--or any advocacy organization, for that matter--is the ways in which you can become removed from the work your organization is doing to help people every day. The meetings, the memos, the e-mails, and the miles of travel often separate those of us who aren't doing the work in the field from those of you who make our efforts meaningful.

But several months ago, many of my colleagues had a chance to see the lives of those we touch with our advocacy and programs. At a May gathering in the Russell Senate Office Building, here in Washington, DC, CWLA brought in representatives from leading family agencies and researchers from government agencies to testify to the importance of funding effective, comprehensive programs for drug and alcohol treatment for mothers (see "Eye on CWLA," page 20). Too many parents who seek treatment are unable to gain access to it, but the Child Protection/Alcohol and Drug Partnership Act, now under consideration in Congress, asks legislators to increase funding for programs that help mothers and children find a safe way out of drug use.

During the policy briefing, CWLA Vice President for Government Affairs Liz Meitner spoke about the financial and political realities of arranging treatment for families, and researcher James Herrell from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration discussed research proving the overwhelming effectiveness of such programs.

But the most powerful arguments came from two mothers who have been in recovery for years. Connie Brooks and Rosetta Kelley shared the horror stories of their addictions, their lives on the streets, and the many ways they had failed their children and themselves. Both insisted they would never have emerged from their addictions without the comprehensive program at the Center for Mental Health in Washington, DC. While Brooks and Kelley spent months learning about the causes of their addictions and new ways to manage their lives and their emotions, their children were cared for and received their own regimen of healing therapy.

Brooks has been clean for seven years, and she works as a counselor at the facility that helped her turn her life around. Kelley has been clean for five years and is employed as an administrative assistant at the U.S. Department of Labor.

Everyone in the room that afternoon was transfixed by the stories of these two women, but too many people still fail to understand that the decision to seek treatment is much more complicated for women with children. Who will provide for the children while a mother seeks treatment? Who will look after them for the months of therapy sessions, support groups, and job training offered to smooth the transition to a "normal" life? And who will tend to the children's psychological needs, which are no doubt substantial, given the path their mother's life has taken?

As we begin the month of September, National Alcohol and Drug Addiction Recovery Month, this issue of Children's Voice covers the territory quite exhaustively. Programs like the Substance Abuse Recovery Management System in San Diego (see "Agency Briefs," page 22) are designed specifically for families dealing with substance abuse and child abuse or neglect, conditions that often go hand in hand. Programs like La Bodega de la Familia (page 24) work to identify the strengths of the family unit and use them to bolster parents' work toward recovery, rather than casting the needs of the parent against the needs of the child, which is too often the case.

Although all of us in child welfare applaud the motivation for the timelines and deadlines imposed by the Adoption and Safe Families Act and other federal laws, there should be more tolerance for the timelines inherent in the recovery process. When parents don't have the opportunity and the time to heal themselves and correct their mistakes, families are split apart, hurting the children and removing a source of strength and motivation for the parent. Of course, protecting a child from harm is always the primary goal, and sometimes that means removal from the home, but programs such as these try to make room for everyone's needs.

As one of the speakers said at the policy briefing in May, "Most parents want to be good parents." With the help of our political leaders and the model set forth by some incredible agencies, we should find more ways to help parents do just that.

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