June 19, 2007
Column By RICK GREEN, Courant Staff Writer
Jennifer Fuentes was another forgotten cocaine addict without hope when she learned she was pregnant with twin girls.
Hers could be one more miserable tale of Hartford poverty.
At the hospital, "they actually told me `your daughters are going to be taken away,'" Fuentes recalled. "When that happened, I kept using and using. The anger of losing them made me use more."
Fuentes grew up in a household of addiction, so it's the story we've come to expect, where drugs and despair prevail and the cycle continues.
Instead, social workers from an unusual program called PROkids - one that aims to get addicts clean and keep families together - intervened and altered the course of Fuentes' life, getting her off drugs and back with her babies.
But now PROkids, a partnership between the Department of Children and Families, Hartford Hospital and Connecticut Children's Medical Center, is running short of hope. State funding for the program ends in days. More than 130 children are served by the 16-year-old initiative.
PROkids boasts a high success rate of keeping mothers together with their babies, but will lose crucial DCF funding of about $400,000 annually at the end of this month.
"We know that this program does make a difference. We are able to keep mothers and babies together," said Dr. Margaret McLaren, director of PROkids and the Well Newborn Nursery at Hartford Hospital. "DCF has been supportive of this program. It's through DCF that we have been able to grow."
McLaren told me the program is based on two critical factors: that new mothers are highly motivated to change for the sake of their baby and the importance of aggressive, sustained health care for young families.
"What we try to do is help the mother [keep] the baby in mind, so that she doesn't lose hope. It is very comprehensive. It works around the primary care visits with the baby," McLaren said.
When they keep mothers with their babies at birth, the program has had remarkable success. Nearly 80 percent of PROkids newborns discharged from the hospital with their mothers were still with them 18 months later.
"They need an opportunity," Marline Cosme, a family therapist with PROkids, said. "They need a chance to show society that just because you are an addict doesn't mean you can't do anything."
No doubt money is tight, but these problems don't just go away.
We scratch our heads about teenagers who get pregnant, why fourth-graders can't read, but we can't find money for a program that actually breaks this cycle. State legislators might want to think about this before they finish the budget.
"We recognize it is a very important need," DCF spokesman Gary Kleeblatt told me. "It's just a question of whether we can find the resources."
For Fuentes, PROkids was the difference between addiction and motherhood.
PROkids found her a bed in drug rehab. Offered a hand, Fuentes jumped at the chance to kick her habit. Her newborn daughters were returned to her within six months, once she demonstrated she was a recovering addict.
Now 30, her children are fine - and we're not paying for them in state custody.
"I've been abstinent from drugs for seven years. I'm a college student," Fuentes said. "I'm looking forward to being a drug counselor."
I don't know who - if anyone - is to blame for a situation in which we go from having a model program to nothing at all. But how can anyone feel right about a decision like this?
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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