Child abuse, alcoholism fought on the same front. New Jersey first to link counseling efforts

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

New Jersey recognizes a two-headed monster when it sees one. That's why it is the first state to officially join forces in combating child abuse and alcoholism.

Eighty percent of all cases of family violence in New Jersey involve drinking, according to the New Jersey Governor's Task Force on Child Abuse and Neglect. More than 50 percent of the child abuse cases in the state are directly related to parental alcoholism.

With this in mind, an affiliation agreement has been drawn up between the state's Division of Alcoholism, under the Department of Health, and the Division of Youth and Family Services, under the Department of Human Services. The agreement will be signed Jan. 6 and will serve as a guide for interagency cooperation and networking.

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With the increasing sensitivity about both alcoholism and child abuse issues, ``you begin to see alcoholism all around you; you begin to be sensitive and realize that a lot of problems spring from a family member's drinking problem,'' says Riley Regan, Director of New Jersey's Division of Alcohol.

Some of the specific goals stated in the affiliation document are to:

Cross train professionals in child welfare and alcoholism.

Develop models of intervention and treatment appropriate to the coincidence of alcoholism and child abuse.

Promote awareness of child abuse and alcoholism.

The agreement gives guidance to alcoholism counselors who have spotted violence in their clients' families and to social workers who suspect child abuse.

``It's a heightening of the awareness of the two systems and their counterparts; a tool to extend resources. With it we'll all be better able to deal with the multi-problem family,'' says Diane O'Hara, administrative analyst for the family division.

Other states have made gestures in the direction of such a program but New Jersey is the first to establish a formal relationship between the two kinds of departments, says Nancy Fiorentino, chief of treatment training and education for the alcohol division and one of the writers of the agreement.

In the past, confidentiality laws and policies have been significant barriers when it came to alcohol and family departments sharing information and working together. Upholding these laws and policies secures federal and state funding. More recently, however, states have found ways to ensure confidentiality and still link such programs.

Deborah Daro, director of research for the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse, was involved in a 4-year study on child and substance abuse, completed in 1982. It was one of the first federal efforts to get a better handle on the link between alcoholism and abuse.

In the evaluation of 19 clinical programs across the US, she found that over half of the parents involved in child abuse or neglect were also substance abusers; 33 had severe substance-abuse problems. ``I think all states should be looking to [New Jersey] as a model,'' for coping with the duality of these problems, she says.

``New Jersey is a leading state in this issue,'' says Jerry Flanzer, a professor of social work at University of Arkansas, Little Rock, who conducted a treatment project on alcoholism and adolescent abuse.

``One of the things we found is that parents don't necessarily have to be alcoholics, they can be just heavy drinkers,'' says Dr. Flanzer. Also, ``violence may have been causative. The myth is that one drinks, then one hits,'' says Flanzer, and this is not always the case.

Ms. Fiorentino stresses that the word alcoholism is a specific term in the agreement that will later read ``substance abuse.'' She predicts that within the next 18 months, activities covered by the New Jersey agreement will broaden to include all substance abuse, not just alcoholism.

All alcoholic parents may not violently abuse their children, but ``there's a good chance that an alcoholic parent will as least neglect their child, especially when they're on a drinking binge,'' says Ms. O'Hara. Neglect can include lack of supervision and nutrition. But, she goes on to say, in a lot of alcoholic homes there is some type of domestic violence, and ``the child is either witnessing it or becoming part of it.''

Margot Fritz, executive director of Parents Anonymous in Los Angeles says she's extremely happy about the affiliation agreement. According to her, ``It's impossible to be a substance abuser and not be a child abuser if you are a parent.''

With staffs of both New Jersey departments learning about each other's missions and mandates, they will combine their strategies, making their goals ``mutually compatible, complementary, and reinforcing,'' the agreement states.

The document points out that differences in priorities will arise in certain cases, but both divisions will ``respect one another's areas of expertise and promote and encourage consultation, interagency linkages, and prompt referrals to serve the client's and family's best interest.''

``From this point on we're married,'' says O'Hara, ``We all realize we can't do it alone.''

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