Family Setting Fights Addiction

Australian group helps Aborgines beat alcoholism, other drugs

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

IN this main town of Australia's red center, young Aborigine men reel drunkenly in the early afternoon. ``Grog'' is easy to get, liquor stores are abundant. But two hours outside of town, a little community nestled at the foot of the James Range is having modest success helping Aborigines battle alcoholism.

They're doing it by including them in a family setting far from town. The treatment program draws from both Aboriginal culture and the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program.

At the moment, everyone in Intjartnama, a community of 20 people, is gathering in the living room of leaders Elva and Barry Cook for three christenings. Among them are the Cooks' extended family, alcoholics and gasoline-sniffers here for treatment, and counselors. After a celebratory barbecue, most of the residents pile into the community bus for a trip to Alice Springs.

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``We run it like our family,'' Mr. Cook says, as the dust from the bus settles. ``There's no difference. People come here, learn to live back in family again. When someone drinks, the whole family breaks up. Here, they have to share family responsibilities. But we also teach them they can have fun without grog.''

Alcohol has had a devastating impact on Aborigines ever since the late 1950s, when Australian states began lifting the prohibition against selling liquor to Aborigines (the last ban fell in 1972). Alcohol-fueled fights keep hospital emergency rooms filled, and alcohol-related offenses keep prisons filled with Aborgines.

``When drinking alcohol became legal, no one explained the dangers,'' Cook says. ``So all the men with authority - the law-keepers - ended up on the grog. They got dependent on it, and all the authority fell away.''

Cook, who was an alcoholic himself, and Elva, his wife of 30 years, have been working since the 1970s helping others ``get off the grog.'' He started working as an alcohol counselor at Congress, an Aboriginal medical unit in Alice Springs. But feeling that Congress was ``too close to liquor outlets,'' the couple started helping people out of their house.

``People from Congress shifted to our house, slept in the back yard. We fed 14 people every night,'' he recalls. The Cook family, including four children, spent 3-1/2 years traveling around Australia asking Aborigines what kind of alcohol-rehabilitation program they thought would work best for them.

The existing programs were all based on European (what Aborigines call white-Australian) culture. The people he talked to, both urban dwellers and tribal elders, wanted one structured around their values of community, family, culture, and law.

In 1980, the Cooks moved out to Intjartnama, at the end of a long red-dirt road. Cook points to where they lived in the beginning - under a tree - and the tin sheds they moved into next. Since then, they've gotten a windmill-generated water well, some electrical generators, a water tank, and have built six houses plastered with a mixture of lime, mud, and horse manure.

Cook looks white, although he's part Aborigine. Mrs. Cook is a full-blooded Aranda. They have an inclusive policy: Not all who come are Aborigines, and those who are Aborigines come from differing groups, ones that traditionally couldn't work together.

``Building the first half of the first house took two months,'' Cook says. ``But when they got used to each other, the second half took two weeks. People said that couldn't be done.''

In the program, mornings are spent learning how to build houses, throw pots, weld, build fences, train horses. Residents receive a small stipend from the federal government for participating in such training.

After lunch, they have 12-step meetings and show videotapes about alcoholism, including one made by American Indians. Counselors visit from Alice Springs once a week.

But the other focus is on living a traditional lifestyle: ``Hunting, looking for bush tucker [food], putting the young men through the law [initiation ceremonies],'' says Cook.

The facility can handle 26 clients at a time, usually alcoholics and those addicted to inhaling gasoline fumes, sometimes young people who are living on the streets.

Not everyone is beating down their doors. Cook talks of one hard-to-reach couple, both using drugs and alcohol. The husband was violent. Cook was worried about their two children and repeatedly invited them to come out. After three months, the couple reluctantly agreed to come, just for a weekend. They stayed several months. Now the husband is working on a cattle station, and the family, Cook says, is ``beaming with health.''

Cook's reputation is such that judges have agreed to sentence Aborigines arrested for alcohol-related offenses to Intjartnama rather than jail. And the Northern Territory government has hired him to examine community-based correctional programs to make them more relevant for Aborigines.

``Probably [Intjartnama's] biggest value has been as a fulcrum for change on the part of both Aboriginal and government organizations in how we provide alcoholism services,'' says Mike Martin, director for probation and parole of the Northern Territory Department of Correctional Services.

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