Program Reaches Out to Drug-Affected Preschoolers : Health care: Private Santa Monica project is first on Westside to try to educate and study this growing group of troubled children.


Responding to a plea for help from 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.

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 disruptive, said Dr. Howard Hansen, medical director.

Although some drug-affected youngsters do well in school, others cannot tolerate a great deal of stimulation, noise, or surprises--all part of the hectic 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 has a therapeutic nursery school program for children up to 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, 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.

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 could not deal with the huge noisy spaces of the classroom--teachers needed to surround him with furniture so he could not go wandering. Other children continually popped out of their chairs.

"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.

But in these days of budget cutbacks, there is little extra help.

Desperate teachers and principals have been asking 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.

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.

A key question that researchers will explore is whether the inappropriate behavior some children exhibit in schools is the result of biological damage caused by their parents' drug abuse--or partly the result of having been raised in chaotic home environments.

"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.

Even before the announcement of the program, Jack Tillipman, director of the Child Study Center, said he had received calls from parents of about 50 children.

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