OF ALL the unfortunate consequences of this country's drug problem, perhaps the most tragic is its effect on the children of our inner cities.
Many children in Baltimore's inner-city neighborhoods are forced to fend for themselves because one or both of their parents are addled by drugs. As a result, many children don't learn the normative values of the broader society -- the importance of getting an education, obtaining a job, creating and providing for a family, contributing to the neighborhood.
The terrible impact of drugs is worsened by the criminal justice system's focus on the "war on drugs." This misguided strategy has further removed these children from family members by branding them as criminals and incarcerating them in record numbers, but not adequately treating their health problem: substance abuse.
What do we do for the children of the drug addicted? Schools and recreation programs, such as the Police Athletic League centers, have such children for limited amounts of time, not enough time to counteract all of the negative influences in their communities.
Social service programs are tremendously overburdened, providing foster care and child protective services that simply move children to different sites, rarely providing a stable family structure.
What's needed is a program that a number of local groups are discussing: a children's village.
Such a village could be created in a square block of rowhouses, where the back yards would be transformed into a common recreation area.
The residents of the village would live with other children their age and be supervised by carefully chosen adult residential advisers, who would walk the children to and from school and tutor them after school.
Extracurricular activities at the village would be similar to those offered at the city's PAL centers. Such a village would have security to ensure the children's safety.
Enrollment in a village program would be voluntary. Parents could leave their children at the village while they go into substance abuse treatment programs. Once the parents have gone through recovery and are ready to lead productive lives, they could retrieve their children.
Many drug-addicted parents postpone getting treatment because they worry about the fate of their children if they're away from home.
Parents who don't enroll in treatment programs would still be encouraged to stay involved in their children's lives and the life of the village. For example, some parents might be able to help maintain the buildings and grounds of the village, as long as they presented no security risk. Parents would be given increasingly responsible jobs in the village as they demonstrated their ability and commitment to the program. By being of service to others, these addicted parents would certainly experience an increase in their own self-esteem and grow in the eyes of their children, too.
The cost of such villages would not be exorbitant. It could be located in city-owned buildings.
Many of the services could be provided either voluntarily or for nominal cost by parents.
One way to help minimize costs is to combine the children's village with elderly housing. For example, senior citizens could live in a section of the rowhouse development and children in the rest. In a similar successful Illinois project, rent paid by elderly residents helps to subsidize the children's services.
In addition, because enormous savings would be realized from reduced payments for foster care services and other related costs, some money could be directed from such programs -- as it is in Illinois -- to fund the village.
Helping a generation of children become productive, educated, socially responsible individuals has immeasurable social and humanitarian benefits.
Far too many of Baltimore's children are suffering from the terribly destructive consequences of the drug problems in their homes and communities. It is time to try a comprehensive approach to help these youngsters achieve their potential. A children's village would be a good first step.
Peter Beilenson is city health commissioner, Carl Stokes is a member of the city's Board of School Commissioners and Thomas Frazier is the city's police commissioner.
Pub Date: 7/22/98