Keeping an Eye on Kids : Parents Trying Controversial Home Tests, Including Pupil Checks, to Detect Child Drug Use

Times Staff Writer

As strong and loving parents, Cherry and Paul Mashburn oversee their children’s chores and homework. They are watchful of their offspring’s friends and of the hours they keep. And they do something else.

Every few days, the Mashburns of Mission Viejo shine a small flashlight into the eyes of their four children, ages 9 through 20, to make certain they haven’t been using drugs.

The Mashburns learned the “rapid eye check” technique, which gauges changes in the eye’s appearance and performance that can be caused by drugs, from a seminar and videotape kit being marketed to parents as new ammunition in the war on drugs.


“It’s not that I don’t trust them,” said Cherry Mashburn, who has been checking her children’s eyes since December. “I’m just trying to give them extra incentive (to resist drugs), if they ever need it. They can say, ‘My parents would find out.’ That pulls a lot more weight with other kids than ‘I don’t want to.’ ”

Parents, beware. It no longer is enough to just talk with your children about drug use, to warn them of its ravages, to watch your children’s friends and be vigilant for other telling signs, say some enterprising businessmen.

Drug testing, which is becoming more common in the workplace and in schools despite legal challenges, is moving to a new front.

Drug testing has come home.

“Our dream is for it (the eye check) to be as common in the home as a toothbrush and a thermometer,” said Dave Hannah, chairman of the Irvine organization that is marketing the video kit. “We’re hoping to help America understand early detection.”

But others in the drug treatment field contend that home testing can undermine trust between parent and child during the already trying time of adolescence. It brings a heavy-handed, police-type atmosphere into the house if a parent insists on testing a child who is not using drugs and should be suspicion-free, they say.

Further, they say, the eye check is not a dependable test for the most abused drug among adolescents: alcohol.

One physician who works in drug treatment warns that the eye test is not dependable for detecting signs of drugs and could lull parents into a dangerously false sense of security that their children are drug-free.

And if a child is using drugs, the problem has gone too far to be stopped by a flashlight, others say.

“If it’s come to that, they need outside help from a professional,” said one nurse at an Orange County chemical dependency treatment center.

Proponents of the home test acknowledge that their procedure is not a cure-all. But it is a start, they say.

By shining a light in children’s eyes, say the promoters of the “Rapid Eye Check” kit, parents help their youngsters resist peer pressure to use drugs and thereby prevent a drug problem from starting. For children experimenting with drugs, the eye check can help parents detect drug use at an early stage, so they can get help before the children become addicted. And finally, the eye test can provide evidence that the youngsters who have undergone treatment for drugs are staying off them, according to promoters.

The “Rapid Eye Check” will not be the only home drug test kit on the market if the federal Food and Drug Administration approves a mail-order urinalysis kit by an Oklahoma City firm. The eye check kit, however, does not need FDA approval. It sells for $49.95, although Hannah said the technique can be learned at seminars he conducts--$10 for one parent, $15 for both, and $5 more if the child wants to attend. He said he has talked to 10,000 parents and children (some at free school seminars) in the last six months, and one of the videotape’s producers said about 5,000 kits have been sold since Hannah appeared on talk shows a few months ago.

Dedicated to Fighting Drugs

The eye test kit is being marketed by Athletes for a Strong America, a nonprofit group that Hannah--formerly president of Athletes in Action, an amateur athletic organization sponsored by the Campus Crusade for Christ--described as dedicated to fighting drugs. According to income records on file with the state, Athletes for a Strong America had an income of $130,634, and spent $125,170 during the fiscal year ending June, 1988.

The eye test is essentially the basic eye examination doctors perform to gauge the pupil’s size and response to light and the eye’s ability to follow a moving object, all of which can be affected by drugs, including alcohol. Highway patrol officers in several states use a version of the test on suspicious drivers. It is also the test used by one Alaskan high school’s vice principal to check athletes and others signed up for extracurricular activities, and teachers and other officials at several schools in Oregon use the eye test when they suspect students of being under the influence of drugs on campus or at school functions.

“If you want to learn about drugs and dependence, study the eye and see what drugs do to the eye,” said Dr. Forrest Tennant, a respected drug specialist who instructs parents how to perform the test in the “Rapid Eye Check” video. The eye contains a mass of nerve endings, and if drugs are used, the eye’s performance is affected, he said. “You can’t go driving if your pupil doesn’t react. You can’t go running a computer or catch a baseball or a football if the pupil doesn’t react.”

Performed by parents in a loving way, the “Rapid Eye Check” not only helps detect or prevent drug use but can strengthen family ties and open lines of communication, say the kit’s backers.

‘A Way to Say No’

“I’m amazed how many kids love to have the tests because it gives them a way to say no, and they desperately need that now,” said Tennant, an adviser to the National Football League, Los Angeles Dodgers and the California Highway Patrol. “And it’s great for the 12- or 13-year-old or whatever age who’s just getting involved in drugs, to help him before he’s addicted.”

Those arguments are echoed by the people at American Drug Screen Inc., which hopes to market a urine test kit called “Aware” that includes a urine bottle, instructions, a consent form and a shipping tube for mailing a specimen to a participating laboratory. Results of the $39.95 test would be mailed back to the sender within five days.

Like the proponents of the eye check test, company president Larry Howell said having a urine collection kit at home will help kids resist peer pressure.

“If parents have bought a tube, brought it home, and it’s sitting there on top of the fridge, the kids can say, ‘I’d love to participate (in using drugs) but I can’t. My dad’s got a test.’ It’s a reason to say no and a help to them in a peer pressure problem.”

A home test is preferable to carting a child to a doctor’s office for an exam because it is private, and the sample is collected immediately, Howell said. If Junior comes home at 1 a.m. Saturday, behaving a bit oddly, his mother and father will not have to wait until 9 a.m. Monday--when traces of drugs may be gone--for the doctor’s office to open, he said. And if the test is negative, the family doctor has not been drawn in.

Not for Everyone

Like backers of the eye check, Howell said the urinalysis, if presented in a loving way to children, should not undermine trust.

“It is controversial, and this won’t be for every parent,” he said. “But we think the market is so large and the problem is so great, that if it can deter 20% to 30% of the market, it’s a real service to stopping this problem.”

Backers of the eye test say their method is less threatening, invasive and costly.

The “Rapid Eye Check” video features testimonials from prominent sports coaches such as UCLA’s Terry Donahue, Los Angeles Rams’ John Robinson and Denver Broncos’ Dan Reeves, and Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda.

On the videotape, New York Giants quarterback Jeff Rutledge tells how he plans to check the eyes of his children, starting when they are 8 years old, and “make it a fun and positive experience.”

Former Green Bay Packer quarterback Bart Starr also appears, saying his son, Bret, had a drug problem, but by the time the family confronted him about it, “It was too late.” Bret Starr underwent treatment but apparently returned to drugs. He died at age 20 last July of cardiac arrhythmia, with traces of cocaine in his body. Speaking for the eye test, Bart Starr says in the video that if he had known of a way to detect his son’s drug use earlier, “We would have used it.”

The Wrong Attitude

Even if they have close and loving relationships with their children, parents are wrong if they believe they can detect drug use merely by watching for signs such as dropping grades, belligerent attitudes and undesirable friends, Hannah said.

“By the time those signs become apparent, the kids have taken drugs for one to three years and are probably addicted.”

Hannah, a Mission Viejo resident who said he checks the eyes of his 18-year-old and 21-year-old sons twice a week, suggested that the test should be started when children are 7 or 8 years old. Not only are some children being offered drugs that young, he said, but also they are “easy to work with” and will not protest the test, which then will become routine as they grow older, he said.

But others in the drug treatment field criticize the idea of parents inspecting their children’s eyes for drug use.

Dr. Mark De Antonio, director of the adolescent developmental disabilities unit at UCLA’s Neuro Psychiatric Institute, is concerned that parents could be lulled into a false sense of security by a test of “unknown reliability.”

There are several drugs that the eye test will not pick up, he said. Alcohol, “the biggest drug of abuse in adolescence,” does not always leave clues in the pupils, and some doses of marijuana and cocaine will not affect the pupils, he said.

In addition, he said, the potential for getting a false test result, either positive or negative, is too high to rely on the eye test, and that “actually could be harmful. . . . It can give a false assurance that they’re taking care of something they’re not” while they fall inattentive to other telling signs of drug use.

Trust Issue Raised

The test also raises the issue of trust, of whether parents undermine a precious bond by checking their children for drugs, if there is no reason for suspicion.

“I don’t think a parent should ever relate to a child (on that basis), unless it’s part of a carefully designed treatment plan,” said UC Irvine psychiatry professor Dr. Edward R. Kaufman, who is director of the University Chemical Dependency Service at Capistrano by the Sea Hospital in Dana Point.

If a child has undergone treatment for drug use, a professional sometimes will instruct a parent to check the child for drugs afterward, because an integral part of treatment is monitoring, he said. For example, urine or pupil testing may be part of a monitoring program that the child agrees to, as part of the treatment, he said.

“But if any parent got to the point where he is doubting the child’s use of drugs . . . then that family needs to be in the hands of trained professionals,” Kaufman said. “If you’re that suspicious, you get a professional’s opinion.”

Besides, critics say, some children will fight rather than submit, and will outsmart their parents. If they think their parents will test their urine, they can save urine before they use drugs, or dilute it by drinking lots of water--or in extreme cases, get or buy “clean” urine from someone else, they say. Or, if all else fails, adolescents fearing an eye or urine test might just not go home.

“And is that what you want?” asked Joanne Taylor, a nurse at two Orange County drug treatment centers. “You’re setting yourself up for a policeman mentality.”

Mark S. Poster, UC Irvine professor and author of a book on critical theory of the family, said approaching an adolescent with a home drug test is bound to threaten an already difficult stage in the parent-child relationship.

‘A Crucial Step’

“This is at a crucial step of their autonomy and independence from the parent,” Poster said. It can undermine the level of trust they share, he said.

“Parents are both authority figures and love figures,” which is a complicated combination for a limits-testing adolescent to deal with, Poster said.

Drug testing can be conducted with less resistance at this stage in the schools, rather than in the home, because “you’re not asked to love your teacher,” he said. “When you have the combination of authority and love, certain assertions of authority undermine the love relationship.”

But Hannah and Tennant say trust is not an issue. Parents regularly do things to check children’s health and behavior, they say.

“You spank your kids. You give them shots. You give them hearing tests. You check to see if they’ve cleaned their room. You make them get a driver’s license. All those things are far, far more invasive and intrusive than looking at their eyes,” Tennant said.

Added Hannah: “Why is it we don’t question the right of a parent to check up on everything except something that will kill them?” Besides, he said, changing times bring about changing responses to the issue of rights. For example, no one questions the necessity of metal detectors and baggage searches at airports, he said.

Further, the eye test’s backers insist the test is an accurate gauge, one that is accepted as legal evidence for drug and alcohol use when performed by law enforcement officials.

“I ask, if you don’t like it, have you got a better way?” said Tennant. “Don’t give us willy-nilly and talk about more self-esteem. Everybody’s been told that by every psychologist and do-gooder. . . . An 8- or 10-year-old kid who starts smoking marijuana is going to drive out enough brain chemicals to ruin his self-esteem for life.”

Nothing to Hide

Cherry Mashburn said her family started the eye test after she heard a rumor that her oldest son was taking drugs. None of the four children resisted, and the oldest son tested negative.

“It didn’t bother me. I didn’t have anything to hide,” said David Mashburn, 20, who is living at home after graduating from a technical school in Phoenix.

The eye test, his mother said, “is a shield around our family. . . . I don’t think my kids would ever use drugs, but I don’t want to be the one who thinks they’re not, and then find out too late I was wrong.”