A new weapon in the war on drugs: family

A New York program that focuses on drug treatment through family support is a revolutionary new model.

Michael Darby has five new reasons to stay off drugs and out of jail: His girlfriend, Denise Ruiz, and her four daughters.

It's the family the 24-year-old parolee has always wanted. And despite the challenges and frustrations that come with such close relationships, he's determined to work to keep them.

"It's crazy because she and the girls got here right on time," says Mr. Darby, who was paroled in September and moved in with Ms. Ruiz shortly thereafter. "I always prayed for a family and someone who could love me a much as I loved her."

The new Darby/Ruiz family is part of what's being touted as a "revolutionary" approach to drug treatment and probation. Called La Bodega de la Familia, it's proven to have significant success in reducing substance abuse and a return to crime among parolees such as Darby. The reason: It looks at the parolee not as an individual but part of a whole family that has its own set of separate issues that need to be addressed for real healing and recovery to take place.

It sounds like simple common sense. And in fact, many of the private treatment centers for middle-class addicts that have insurance make working with the whole family a priority. But because most poor people get their drug treatment through the criminal-justice system, families are usually an afterthought at best.

"It is one of those things that is so intuitive, but its never really been used," says Carol Shapiro, the founder of La Bodega de la Familia.

"Government in poor people's lives tends to discount the power and influence of family; it tends to think they have all the answers."

A study by the Vera Institute for Justice released in Washington on Tuesday found that illegal drug use by participants in La Bodega declined from 80 percent to 42 percent, significantly more than in the comparison group. La Bodega participants were also less likely to be arrested again and they, along with their families, reported an "enhanced sense of well-being" as a result of the increased access to - and use of - support services.

Principles with policy implications

The findings have caught the attention of policymakers in a wide range of fields from drug treatment to public housing. The reason: using La Bodega's systematic approach to family healing can be taught to social workers and case managers in any field. And with an estimated 600,000 people being released from prison each year and the worst budget crisis in generations - the hope is that any government agency can tap and leverage the power of the family to help in recovery.

An expanded program

In 2001, Miss Shapiro started a new nonprofit called Family Justice which is designed to teach La Bodega's principles to thousands of people in the criminal justice system around the country.

"Considering that we have limited resources, we're always looking for what works," says Rick Levy, New York City's first deputy commissioner of probation. There are currently about 60 probationers in the program and he would like to expand that number.

When La Bodega was started in 1996 as an experimental project in an old bodega on New York's predominantly Hispanic Lower East Side, Shapiro and the other founders thought that family involvement would help participants stay in drug treatment longer. So researchers were stunned to see the significant drop in drug use with no correlating increase in the use of treatment. They went back to try understand why.

"It wasn't the formal treatment," says Chris Stone, the director of the Vera Institute of Justice. "But it appears people were adjusting their behavior because of their changed and stronger relationships with their families."

One of things that distinguishes La Bodega's approach is the program's definition of "family."

The family case managers make it a point of going beyond just the immediate family to provide support by asking their participants about other figures in their lives. As a result the "family" grows to include girlfriends and even close neighbors from childhood.

In Michael Darby's case, it included Ms. Ruiz and her children. They'd met while he was in prison. Ruiz was a born-again Christian. She'd gone to visit Darby as a favor to his grandmother. The two eventually became romantically involved.

Building a support network

When Darby first arrived home after spending most of the past six years in prison primarily for drug dealing, he had a difficult time adjusting to his new freedom and responsibilities. Ms. Ruiz had expected that he'd immediately get back to work. The two clashed, and the relationship almost ended.

"I had my downs and I went real down, but I didn't know how to stop," says Darby. "I almost lost her."

He easily could have been sent back to prison for violating his parole. Instead, his case manager Amy Alverez worked closely with Darby and also helped Ruiz gain a new understanding of the challenges her boyfriend was facing.

"It helped me understand that I have to be patient," she says.

"I expected a lot from him quick, but jail is all he's ever really known, he hasn't really been in a healthy, structured environment."

The two are committed to building a life together. And Darby is ready now, because his life no longer feels like a "black hole" filled with pain, but something that's blessed and is his own.

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