Responding to a plea for help from local educators, St. John's Child Study Center in February will be opening a pilot preschool program for drug-affected children.
The Santa Monica project is believed to be the first comprehensive private program on the Westside to offer classes aimed at teaching and studying this rapidly increasing population of youngsters. It will focus on children 3 to 6 years old.
Many children prenatally exposed to drugs and alcohol struggle with a variety of physical, behavioral and learning disorders. They are often labeled "crack babies," although alcohol and drugs other than crack cocaine are frequently involved.
The problem is not confined to the inner city or the poor. Educators and health-care workers in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District estimate that at least 10% of kindergarten students in the relatively affluent district are drug-affected.
But a lack of therapeutic preschool programs in the community means that many--perhaps most--do not receive any help until they enter grade school.
By then, for some children, it may be too late.
The Child Study Center, established in 1962 by St. John's Hospital to serve children with special needs, will become one of the few places these children and their families can go for help.
Regular preschools often kick these children out because their behavior is so disruptive, according to Dr. Howard Hansen, medical director.
Although some drug-affected youngsters do fine in school, others cannot tolerate a great deal of stimulation, noise, or surprises--all part of the regular, hectic, rowdy school day. Some of these children exhibit antisocial behavior. They bite, hit, or have tantrums. Attention and speech disorders and hyperactivity are common.
Head Start programs accept as many of these youngsters as possible, said Suzan Van Pelt, assistant director for the Head Start State Preschool Program in Los Angeles County, but Head Start has waiting lists and can serve only 20% of eligible drug-affected children.
The few other therapeutic programs in the community also have limited enrollment.
The Westside Children's Center in Santa Monica, for example, has a therapeutic nursery school program for children up to age 3. Executive Director Nina Jaffe estimates that 95% of the children enrolled in that program are drug-affected.
Workers at that center "scramble" to place children when they graduate from the program, she said.
"Our fear is that these children will lose ground when they leave and don't get the attention they need," said Carol Chernack, a clinical coordinator with the center.
Public school officials say they are concerned about their ability to deal with drug-affected children who enter kindergarten without having received the help they need. Although some children can adapt to the tumult of a classroom with up to 34 more children, others cannot.
Peggy Lyons, a member of the Santa Monica-Malibu school board, recalled visiting a school where one girl, apparently drug-affected, kept taking her clothes off. Another child couldn't deal with the huge noisy spaces of the classroom--teachers needed to surround him with furniture so he didn't go wandering off. Other children continually popped out of their chairs. Many of them didn't know what to do with toys.
"We simply don't have the facilities or training to manage these kids," Lyons said, noting that many drug-affected children are not impaired enough to meet current requirements for receiving special education funding.
"These children don't even know how to play successfully--much less handle academic skills," said Kathy McTaggart, a substance abuse prevention specialist with the Santa Monica-Malibu district. "The longer we delay the needs of these children, the more profound their problems become. Eventually, they simply continue to fail and fail."
Betsy Albright, the district's coordinating nurse, agreed. "It's a very frustrating situation," she said. "Teachers up the line are screaming that these children need extra help."
But in these days of budget cutbacks, there is little extra help.
Desperate, teachers and principals have been begging members of the Santa Monica-Malibu school board to do something.
Over the past year, board members and Supt. Eugene Tucker have turned to the private sector, meeting with officials at St. John's to discuss starting a research and training project.
The St. John's program will serve 16 to 20 children and cost $250,000 to $300,000 a year. The funds will be provided by assorted private grants, the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health/Public Guardian and tuition.
Jack Tillipman, director of the Child Study Center, said full tuition will be competitive with rates charged by other therapeutic preschool programs, which generally cost between $600 and $1,000 a month per student. Tillipman said, however, that most students in the new program will receive subsidies according to need. A key component will be a team of doctors, therapists and other health experts who will work intensely not only with the children but with their families. Some of these children have been removed from their homes and placed with foster families, but many continue to live with their parents. The parents are often in desperate need of help and support to prevent them from sliding back into addiction.
Tillipman acknowledged that the high cost and small size of the program will mean that the new facility will just be dealing with "the tip of the iceberg." But the center's director said he hopes the classes will become a sort of teaching "laboratory," where researchers can gather and spread information about how to reach drug-affected children. The facility plans to offer training programs for Westside educators, who have been calling the center asking for help "continuously," Tillipman said.
A key question researchers will explore is whether the inappropriate behavior some of these children exhibit in schools is the inevitable result of biological damage caused by their parents' drug abuse--or partly the result of having been raised in chaotic home environments.
Studies elsewhere suggest that it is a combination of the two, but that with early intervention the children bounce back--which would mean that there is hope for these children and for the public schools that must deal with them.
"If we identify these children before they reach school age, maybe we can give them a better chance at making it," said school board member Mary Kay Kamath.
Tillipman said St. John's will become an advocate for action. "There really is a rushing tide of these kids," he said. "They're in such need. We hope to prove that something can and must be done to help."
But along with his hope comes disappointment, Tillipman said, that more can't be done to rescue children from what could be an education--and lifetime--of failures and unhappiness.
Even before an official announcement of the program, Tillipman said he had received calls from interested parents of about 50 children.