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Transforming ideas of drug rehabilitation

Operation PAR Inc., a Pinellas Park-based nonprofit drug treatment agency, is providing hope for many who are victims of drug abuse. Such facilities provide treatment as well as life skills to help the abuser to stay off the drugs and become a successful parent and employee. Programs like these are transforming how Florida's leaders are treating drug abuse.

Sundae, a Florida native, is divorced and has a 4-year-old son. She wants a successful future for the boy, and she dreams of owning a restaurant.

She could just as easily have been a statistic in America's politically charged war on drugs, except that she found a place in Largo that taught her how to turn her life around. She came to grips with her "insanity," as she calls her drug habit, through the help of PAR Village, a residential drug treatment and parenting center.

Sundae's story, and that of PAR, offer some simple human lessons in our societal struggle with demon drugs. They also speak to a remarkable political embrace in a county that long has prided itself on conservative principles of law and order.

From birth, Sundae's home life was dysfunctional. Her parents fought constantly, drank excessively and used drugs. They had diagnosed mental health problems, and they divorced when Sundae (whose last name is being withheld to protect her identity) was 4. During the next 10 years, she went back and forth between the two households. Despite the volatile circumstances, she made excellent grades and was a star athlete.

But when she was 14, her mother committed suicide and everything fell apart. Her grades dropped, and she started drinking booze and smoking marijuana. At 16, she graduated to cocaine and began selling it to schoolmates and whoever else would buy. She got into fights, and was arrested for assault and battery and put on house arrest. She went through three high schools, and ultimately dropped out.

"I became very self-centered, hateful and very angry," she says.

She got married at 19, entering what she now calls an "abusive relationship that included drug use." After becoming pregnant, she stopped smoking cigarettes, drinking and using and selling drugs. Three months after her son was born, however, the father was convicted and sent to prison. Shortly afterward, her father was sent to federal prison for 20 years.

She returned to drugs.

"To get cocaine, I started spending every dollar I made working and then wrote bad checks and started on a crime spree," she says. "I was insane and ended up in jail 10 times."

Her arrests included grand theft, forgery and possession of drug paraphernalia. She turned to prostitution, robbery. She says she was raped, and her life was constantly in danger. She neglected her son, who was raised by her family.

Then, a police cruiser tried to pull her over one day and she sped away. The police gave chase. She lost control of the car, hit a tree, and, in the process, her boyfriend lost an eye and the mobility in his right leg. She was treated at the hospital and taken directly to jail.

Instead of giving Sundae long jail time, an empathetic judge sentenced her to PAR Village. Perhaps best of all, Sundae's son was permitted to live with her at the 50-bed center for women during her eight-month treatment. Today, because of Operation PAR Inc., a Pinellas Park-based nonprofit drug treatment agency, Sundae and her child are living in their own apartment. She is drug-free and is working.

"PAR has provided me with the opportunity to raise my child," she says. "I have a clean slate and have hope for my future. I now have stability in my life. PAR gave me structure and taught me responsibility."

Sundae's plight shows that drug abuse, especially among young people, is not so easily resolved by some of the more fashionable political prescriptions of the day, by elected officials who want to lock 'em up and throw away the key. Thanks to an inspiring community drug treatment program, some of those same politicians are now able to see Sundae in all of her complex humanity, as a vulnerable young woman who gave in to the worst temptation, who did not have the inner strength to create a firewall of self-definition that would protect her.

Today, agencies such as PAR are leading the way in rescuing the Sundaes of this state and nation. At PAR, part of the real story is that it was founded by Republicans, a political party that has had a national history of supporting Draconian solutions to drug problems. When Florida's current governor, Jeb Bush, ran against Lawton Chiles the first time in 1994, he was hardly a guy who would have spent time with the likes of Sundae.

Now, however, Bush can be seen at PAR singing the agency's praises. When he recently unveiled his $60-million drug control plan, he did so at the Shirley D. Coletti Academy for Behavioral Change, a PAR residential treatment center for juvenile offenders. His outreach has attracted bipartisan support, as Republicans and Democrats have rallied behind his efforts to combat youthful drug abuse.

In other words, some of the old divisive politics of the war on drugs have given way to an acceptance of the complex, personal face of drug addiction. And old rivals have come together to fund programs such as PAR Village.

Since 1992, when it was established with a five-year grant from the Center For Substance Abuse Treatment, PAR Village has rescued nearly 500 women such as Sundae. When these women improve, their children's chances of living healthy, happy lives are doubled. The agency also has served 853 children either born prior to or during their mother's stay there. Each child born at the facility was drug free at birth, according to official reports.

The profile of typical women entering the center is numbing:

77 percent used cocaine; 5 percent, marijuana; 12 percent, alcohol.

90.2 percent have criminal records

87 percent were referred by the criminal justice or social system.

60 percent were involved in prostitution.

95 percent were unemployed.

60 percent were pregnant at the time of admission.

The average education level was ninth grade.

36.1 percent had custody of their children, and the average had three children.

Given these statistics, PAR's task of steering its female clients toward a new way of life is daunting. Professionals, such as Rebecca Wade, PAR's nurse educator, know that many addicts have mental-health problems. As part of their preparation to rejoin society, mothers receive parenting training, techniques in discipline and recognition of stages of children development, vocational assessment and employment counseling and advice on sexual trauma. They also attend classes on depression and self-defeating relationships. And academic courses are a centerpiece of the daily routine, which includes: wake up at 5:30 a.m., roll call at 6:45; dorm clean-up after roll call; breakfast at 8; taking the children to the on-site day care or putting them on their buses to public school; and dorm check at 10:30 p.m.

Training mothers alone, however, is not enough. The children, who in the past would more than likely have been taken from the mothers, also must learn to overcome the effects of their parents' addiction. Most of them have been severely neglected. Therefore, they receive, among other things, speech therapy, medical attention and motor-skills therapy and after-school care designed for those with perinatal drug exposure, which occurs near the time of birth.

PAR Village works because of its systemic, common-sense, practical method. Wade, a registered nurse who conducts group therapy sessions, says that PAR's staff members know their clients want the same things that everyone else wants.

"They want to get a job, have a family and be safe," she says. "They want to be happy. PAR gives them that opportunity. They gain back their self-respect. When you give people back their lives, they become taxpayers and citizens. That's why we help clients with education and help them get jobs. The lack of an education and jobs are what hold addicts back. It's a vicious cycle. It's hopelessness."

Cheryl, 34, is a mother of two boys, and is one of those clients who wants help. She has been at PAR Village for 11 months, after 20 years of abusing drugs and alcohol.

"I finally couldn't do it anymore," Cheryl says. "I wanted to stop the insanity of my addiction. I gave up everything I had for my addiction _ my home, my children and any values I had ever been taught."

Cheryl found out about PAR from the state Department of Children and Families, and she was surprised to find out her children could live with her during treatment. Her 4-year-old attends PAR's day care, and her 8-year-old attends a public school. Scheduled to leave PAR in November, she is realistic about her condition and her chances of succeeding on her own. She is ready to go home but knows that she has not totally kicked her addiction.

"I am not cured," she said. "PAR has taught me how to live with my addiction. I have a great support system now, something I didn't have before. I am a better mom now. I spend a lot of time with my children. My 8-year-old knows what's going on. I've explained it to him. He grew up with my addiction. I think I have a bright future now."

Cheryl's new perspective explains the acronym PAR _ Parental Awareness and Responsibility. And the seed for PAR was planted in 1969, when Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney James T. Russell, then-Pinellas Sheriff Don Genung, County Commissioner Charles Rainey and others organized a volunteer group to slow youthful drug abuse in the area. One evening, Russell received a telephone call from a neighbor and friend, Shirley Coletti, who told him that her teenage daughter was using drugs.

Coletti wanted help _ and information. When the homemaker found nothing, she formed a group of volunteers and went to work. The result today is a private agency with an annual budget of $25-million, a staff of more than 600 and integrated addiction and mental health services at various sites in Hernando, Pinellas, Pasco and Manatee counties. Last year, PAR treated nearly 12,000 clients.

Even after 30 years as PAR's president, Coletti still speaks of her mission with passion, and her determination to keep families and their children away from substance abuse is stronger than ever.

"When we talk about drug rehabilitation, we are really talking about habilitation," she says. "We're talking about teaching people new skills so they can learn to live quality, drug-free lives. This also includes leisure skills. Just ask an addict what they do during their leisure time, and their answer will be "get high' or "go to the bar.' Most drug abusers, regardless of their age, have never experienced healthy hobbies or recreational activities."

Like other veterans of the nation's therapeutic community, Coletti is tough, and she is realistic about the profound allure of drugs and their far-reaching impact. "Recovering from drugs and alcohol use requires a lifelong commitment from the drug user, their family and their community," she says. "On average, one or two episodes of treatment cannot arrest an individual's addiction, particularly severe chronic use."

The main key to solving drug abuse, Coletti says, is making entire families aware and responsible. Too many children, such as 18-year-old Josh, grow up seeing one or both of their parents using drugs. Although his mother has been drug-free for 11 years, Josh remembers the old days and how her addiction influenced him to start smoking marijuana.

"When I was 14, I was smoking a lot of pot," he says. "I came to treatment just to keep from going to prison. But now that I've been here, I see that my life has changed a whole lot. When I get out of here in June, I want to go to college or a vocational school. I know I can do it because I have faith in myself now. I'm also very close to my mother, grandmother and brother. I believe I can make it now."

Susan Latvala, chairman of PAR's board of directors and a member of the Pinellas School Board, knows that PAR can help teenagers such as Josh turn their lives around. Like Coletti and many others with the agency, she is a veteran of the drug wars and carries personal scars. She sought Coletti's help several years after her teenage son became addicted to drugs.

"My commitment to PAR developed through my son's treatment and the fact that our whole family was educated on the facts of drug addiction, treatment, relapse and long-term recovery," she says. "Drug addiction cannot be cured by inoculation. It requires long-term behavioral change as well as a strong family and community-support system.

"I am convinced that we can dramatically improve the quality of life in our community, state and country if we prevent children from ever using drugs and provide long-term treatment to those families already affected. There is no pain like the pain of seeing your own child suffering and headed for failure. There is no joy like seeing that child whole again."

To his credit, Gov. Bush, unlike many of his counterparts in other states, is listening and acting. He has rejected the harsh, punitive approach to youthful drug abuse popular just a few years ago. Florida's therapeutic community welcomes his goal of reducing substance abuse in Florida by half in five years through prevention, treatment and increased law enforcement. His plan will add approximately 10,000 beds to treatment centers statewide and two drug-enforcement units in South Florida and one in Central Florida.

While many other residential treatment programs around the country are reporting negligible success with their clients, PAR's statistics remain impressive. Studies show that individuals who remain in residence for more than 90 days reduce their use of drugs and criminal activity and are more likely to return to school and find a job. The overwhelming majority of those who complete their treatment stop using drugs altogether _ especially when family, friends and others support them.

PAR's success is directly attributable to the hard work of Coletti and her staff and perhaps, unwittingly, to the bipartisanship that has begun to transform how Florida elected officials and civic leaders view treating youthful drug abuse. In other words, when a child is in trouble with a substance, both Democrats and Republicans are helping. It is this shared willingness to look at the faces of individuals, such as those of Sundae, Cheryl and Josh, that offers perhaps the greatest hope of all.

Sundae and her 4-year-old son live in this room at PAR Village, a drug treatment and parent training facility, in Largo. One of the unusual features of the PAR is children are allowed to live with their mothers going through treatment. According to PAR, the chances of successful treatment increases for mothers if their children are allowed to attend.

Cheryl and her two children live at PAR Village in Largo. Her 4-year-old, shown above with Cheryl, attends PAR's day care, and her 8-year-old attends a public school. She says PAR has taught her to live with her addiction. "I have a great support system now, something I didn't have before. I am a better mom now. I spend a lot of time with my children."

Josh, left, and Reshon ride the city bus to their jobs at Burger King. Both are residents at PAR. Josh says PAR has given him hope. "On the street, everyday was like a movie. I never thought about my future. My future was how much dope I was going to sell and what kind of car I could buy with the money."

Success story

PAR Village's program for women has impressive post-treatment statistics:

+ 9O percent of women have not used drugs

+ 80 percent continue to be arrest free

+ 73 percent regained or maintained control of their children

+ 83 percent are currently employed or in school

+ 40 percent are no longer on public assistance

+ 43 percent improvement in children's language skills

+ 100 percent improvement in children's motor skills

+ 100 percent improvement in children's personal and social skills, and intellectual growth

+ 93 percent are currently living in a stable, safe place

Source: Operation Par

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