Govans clinic helps cure confused kids

July 30, 1991|By Dan Thanh Dang

Born to a heroin addict and an alcoholic father who was addicted to cocaine, Michael used to have violent outbursts, didn't know how to play with other children and clung to his mother's side constantly.

After 18 months in a program created by Dr. Alexandra McLean, the change in him is visible. Talking, laughing and playing with his friends -- activities that are natural for most children -- Michael seems like any other 3-year-old boy having a good time.

Dr. McLean, a 41-year-old psychiatrist, created the Little People Therapeutic Program in 1987 to help drug-addicted parents and their children. The center, located behind Govans Presbyterian Church on York Road, counsels parents about their problems and educates them in raising their children. It also provides a structured day with toys and educational activities for the children.

"I don't have any magical touch. Everybody's contributed to Michael's progress," said Dr. McLean. "But when you get good feedback from a mom, it makes you feel like all of your work has been worthwhile."

Alexandra McLean wanted to be an actress or doctor when she was young; psychiatry never entered the picture until 1979.

"I started medical school in 1968 and had the chance to handle emergency psychiatric cases during my internship," said Dr. McLean, who also worked with heroin addicts at a large chemical dependency unit in Paris. "I saw that the people I worked with reacted to me very well and began to think that maybe I should go into psychiatry."

In 1983, she attempted to start a program in Paris that helped the two groups she cared most deeply about -- children and drug abusers. But the idea never caught on in Paris, and she decided she wanted her children to grow up in America, so she moved back to Baltimore in 1986, where many of her relatives lived.

Finding a job at a methadone treatment center here, she met Richard Lane, director of the center, and Larry Dawson from the city health department, who helped her write a grant application. In 1987, the city gave her $4,000 to start her project.

Open four days a week for four hours a day, the program now serves 14 families on an annual budget of $80,000. Children spend their days playing and learning arts and crafts. Older children, 5- and 6-year-olds, begin to learn the alphabet and other skills to prepare them for school.

"We also try to teach them the basics like being happy, having fun and getting along with others," Dr. McLean said. "We don't want them to have any handicaps like aggressive behavior by the time they leave here to attend school."

While their children are busy, parents take part in GED and literacy programs, learn arts and crafts, have luncheons with guest speakers who serve as good role models, and learn about nutrition.

The center also encourages the parents to decrease their drug use, learn how to control their children in a positive way and start job training.

"It's through the children that we try to reach the parents, because most of them really do love their kids," said Dr. McLean. "We want to stop the future generation from following in the footsteps of their parents into drug abuse."

All the parents are either drug-free or on methadone, a synthetic narcotic taken in liquid or tablet form that is used to block the abuser's craving for heroin.

Parents who are accepted into the Little People program must prove to the staff that they've made an effort to change their lives by enrolling in college, entering counseling or taking the test for a high school diploma.

Although the staff observed significant changes in adult patients, Dr. McLean said the program's long-term effectiveness is unknown because there was no money to follow up on the lives of past clients.

"This is still a relatively new field that no one knows much about," she said. "What we do takes a lot of time, and that causes a problem because people want to see fast results that we just aren't capable of providing that quickly."

The center was recently notified that it was cut from the city budget in favor of more short-term projects. If she cannot find $80,000 from another source by Oct. 1, the center will close.

"Regardless of what the city thinks, I think the program is doing great. We do see significant changes in families after they go through our program. With a little hard work and optimistic thinking, though, I think we'll find the money somewhere," she said.

Michael's mother, Barbara, who asked that she not be further identified, said she's counting on that -- for Michael and her new baby girl, born last week.

"I've learned that my son needs the kind of stability this program provides," said Barbara. "If you see your child happy, it makes you think that maybe you don't need drugs anymore. I don't want to spend 15 or so years in jail,and I don't want to lose my children."

"A lot of drug centers just assume you're a lousy mother, and you begin to believe it from all the negative feelings they present to you," she added. "But Dr. McLean, being as consistent a counselor as she is, is different."

And the difference is as plain as the smile on Michael's face.

"He used to have a very sad, worried expression when he first arrived," said Dr. McLean. "He's completely lost it now. . . . You can just see the cheerfulness and general happy attitude on life he has now when you look at him."

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