How a Mother Tries to Help Daughter

COMMENT

March 12, 1995|By LIZ ATWOOD

Looking back on it now, Parthenia Colbert says she should have known long ago that something was wrong with her daughter.

The first hint came in 1986 soon after Ms. Colbert moved to Kansas with her husband. Sherry, then 20 and an unwed mother, had chosen to stay in Annapolis. One day a friend of Sherry's called Ms. Colbert and told her Sherry was hooked on drugs. Ms. Colbert didn't believe it, but she flew back to Maryland to see for herself. Sherry's apartment was a mess and she didn't look well, but Sherry denied anything was wrong, and Ms. Colbert wanted to believe her daughter.

That was the beginning of the family's nightmare.

Ms. Colbert doesn't know why it happened. She herself was an unwed mother of two, but the father of her children helped support the family and she is proud of the way she raised them. She moved out of public housing when they were toddlers and went to work as a seamstress.

Today, she lives in a neat two-bedroom apartment off Forest Drive. The living room is filled with ceramic figurines she has made. The fragrance of dried eucalyptus drifts through the air.

Ms. Colbert is 47, her children are grown, and she would like to start her own sewing business. But for the last two months, almost every waking moment has been consumed with worry over Sherry and her granddaughters. Although Ms. Colbert didn't believe it in 1986, she now knows her daughter is hooked on crack cocaine. She marvels at how she didn't see it sooner.

In 1989, Ms. Colbert left her husband -- not the father of her children -- and came back home to Annapolis. Within a few months, Sherry and her daughter moved in with her. Sherry was pregnant again, although she denied it.

During those months, Ms. Colbert caught Sherry forging her signature on checks. Sherry took and lost several jobs. When Ms. Colbert tried to press her daughter for answers, she denied anything was wrong.

That scenario continued for four years. Sherry moved from place to place, taking her children with her. Sometimes she crowded into apartments with girlfriends. Sometimes, when their

relationship was better or she had no place else, she returned to live with her mother.

By February 1994, she was pregnant again, but she wouldn't see a doctor. The baby was born two months prematurely.

Ms. Colbert urged Sherry to give the baby up for adoption. Sherry was living with her at the time and Ms. Colbert told her that she couldn't care for three grandchildren in a two-bedroom apartment. As it was, she says, she was working a full-time and a part-time job, rising at 6 a.m. and going to bed at 2 a.m.

Sherry decided to keep the baby, and she moved in with a girlfriend.

However, Ms. Colbert's oldest granddaughter, who was then 11, refused to move again.

It was then that Ms. Colbert began to understand the extent of her daughter's addiction. Her granddaughter told her about crack houses she had visited and described how her mother was sweet and kind while she was high, but irritable and abusive when she craved her fix.

Almost at the same time, Sherry broke down and told her roommate, Cherry, that she wanted help.

Cherry, Ms. Colbert and Sherry's brother, Otis, tried to find her that help. They called drug counselors and took her to treatment centers. Over the weeks, they found that they not only were struggling with a drug addict who at times still denied she had a problem, but also with a drug treatment system that seemed callous and indifferent to their plight.

The three believed Sherry needed to be admitted to an inpatient program to get her away from her abusive boyfriend and the circle of friends supplying her with drugs. But they learned that few options are available in Anne Arundel County, and the counseling centers that do exist increasingly steer addicts to outpatient care to reduce costs.

The new philosophy, one counselor told me, is that drug counselors no longer will "baby sit" patients for a month of in-house treatment. She said if a person really wants to be cured, she will find a way to get to daily counseling sessions and stay away from drugs.

Sherry's family disagreed. They knew Sherry had lost control of her life. She was consumed with anger and was as addicted to the abusive boyfriend as to the cocaine he shared with her. To them, it was a miracle that she even admitted needing help.

Sherry did try an outpatient program in Annapolis and attended counseling sessions two hours each weekday. But her family suspected that once she left the sessions, she went with her friends and got high.

Last week, Ms. Colbert finally persuaded Hope House in Crownsville to accept her daughter for inpatient treatment. The last I heard, Sherry had agreed to go. Ms. Colbert will care for her granddaughters. For the first time in weeks, Ms. Colbert said, she was able to sit down at her sewing machine and get to work. But the real work will be Sherry's.

Liz Atwood is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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