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A Generation of Innocents Carries Drug Abuse Scars : Children: Adult addicts neglect families. Youngsters who never touch dope see home lives spin out of control.

GROWING UP IN AMERICA: The Reality of Childhood Today. Third in a series. Next: Children and homelessness.

May 14, 1991|RON HARRIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"My mother let this person who used drugs stay with us one time and they came in and robbed our house," said Andre, 16, of Los Angeles.

As students in an eighth-grade class in Laurel, Md., told their stories, Susan, 13, raised her hand. "I've seen it make people very violent and it tears families apart," she said.

How?

"Well, there was this family that lived near us when we lived in Newark, and the man used to do drugs," she said. "Most of the time the man was really violent. The wife would leave and take their children. You would be outside and he would throw things out of the window and be yelling and they would call the police."

When the bell rang, Susan lagged behind. Then, cautiously, she approached a reporter: "I want to talk to you," she said meekly. "You know that family I was talking about. That was my family."

Later, in a quiet corner of the library, Susan told her story:

"At first everything was all right. My mother was a nurse. She stayed at the same hospital for 10 years. We lived in a house. I had my own room. We had a back yard, a swing and everything. Now we live in an apartment and me and my sister share a room.

"Everything was all right until the drugs came in. My father used to do drugs . . . cocaine. He used to do it in the house and he and my mother used to fight all the time. The fighting was because of the drugs.

"I can remember the first grade. They used to fight in the middle of the night and they would wake us up and take us to my grandmother's house. My mother had a 1980 Cadillac. My father broke her windows five times . . .

"The fighting and stuff messed me up. In the fourth grade, I used to have temper tantrums. I was mad at everybody . . . In the sixth grade, my sister was getting into trouble at school all the time. . . . I would stay up late at night worrying about my mother, go to school and worry about my mother. . . . I didn't want to come home. I always wanted to stay at my grandmother's house.

"Then one day my mother came down here (to Maryland) to find us a place to stay. At first we stayed with her friend. Then we got our own apartment . . . .

"I try to forget about it now. Those were hard times."

Susan and her sister, officials said, could have easily joined the thousands of cases that have flooded the offices of the nation's welfare system, a system "so overloaded by cocaine that it is about to short-circuit," says Rep. Thomas J. Downey (D-N.Y.).

According to a 1990 report by the House Ways and Means Committee, adult drug use has become the "dominant characteristic" in case loads of child protective service agencies in 22 states and the District of Columbia. It is the cause of dysfunctional families, child neglect and abuse in more than 70% of the cases in cities such as Los Angeles, New York and Washington.

"I would suspect that drugs or alcohol is at the bottom of probably eight of every 10 cases we get," said Brian Albiser, of Las Vegas, who oversees child protective services as administrative coordinator for the Clark County Juvenile Court.

The number of children placed in foster homes jumped 29% nationally in three years--from 280,000 in 1986 to 360,000 in 1989--according to a report by the human resources subcommittee of the Ways and Means Committee.

Jean Bridgeford, who is known to just about everybody as "Granny," has taken 235 foster children into her St. Paul home over the past 20 years. She needs only to look at the faces of the newest foster children scurrying around her six-bedroom house to know that adult drug use is driving children into foster homes.

"The kids we are getting now are mostly drug-related, and some kind of way sex is involved," she said.

"Before, we got the children because a mother had a nervous breakdown, or a kid wouldn't go to school. . . . Now, there are just some horrible things that are happening to our kids. . . . You'd be surprised at what they've seen."

Living with Bridgeford now are Christina, 8, who was sexually molested by her 12-year-old brother and whose mother actually introduced her older sister to cocaine three years ago; Tyrisha, 7, whose father's drug-induced stupor convinced him that it was OK for his daughter to watch him having sex, and Lisa, 17, whose mother's drug abuse led to a 10-year sentence in a Pennsylvania prison for bribery, forgery and prostitution.

In the afternoons, Granny watches over Tecara, 11, whose mother's habit landed mother and daughter in a nearby homeless shelter. Twoana and James Shorter, who have been with Granny for two years, make up the last of her permanent charges. Their older sister, Deanna, used to live with them, but was taken to a detention center for running away from foster homes. A younger sister is in another foster home.

Their mother, a cocaine addict, lives in a halfway house in Minneapolis. A St. Paul judge stripped her of parental rights after she failed repeatedly to live up to the requirements of her rehabilitation program.

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