The Family Fix

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Alyssa is a 30-year-old heroin addict, inducted into a desperate world of quick fixes by her husband who threatened to beat her when she said she wanted out. She later lost her son to foster care when a cousin tipped off authorities to her drug habit. Her mother, Vanessa, who has never used drugs herself, also suffered the consequences of her daughter’s addiction.

In a subdued, battle-weary voice, Vanessa describes the day police raided the apartment where she lived with her daughter and grandson. The silver-haired 54-year-old recalls the events as if they belonged to the plot of a television police drama. One day last year, she recalls “Alyssa’s two-and-a-half-year-old son was taken away. The policeman told me I was a whore and a crack head… They threw my glasses down and stomped on them… That had to be the worst day of my entire life.” Soon after, their landlord had the family evicted.

Families of self-destructive addicts must deal with the anxiety and pain of watching the people they love damage themselves and hurt others as they lie and cheat their way through life. But that’s only part of the ordeal: the families also have to cope with hostile law enforcement and child welfare systems, immovable government bureaucracies and impersonal health care and mental health programs. For people like Vanessa and Alyssa, with few financial resources, the obstacles can be insurmountable.

But Alyssa’s probation officer believed she could rebuild her life and recommended she go to La Bodega de la Familia, a round-the-clock crisis center on East 3rd Street in Manhattan that opened last October. By using a unique family-centered approach toward case management and advocacy, La Bodega is trying to prove that, with the proper support services, families can help improve the effectiveness of drug treatment–and prevent their loved ones from landing in prison.

Alyssa’s mother soon found herself visiting the center as well. “The important thing is that they make you feel like a human being,” she says. “They help you help yourself. They know what to do, and they do it.” In addition to providing counseling, La Bodega staff members found Vanessa transitional housing, put her in contact with an attorney at MFY Legal Services and accompanied her to Family Court where she is fighting to gain custody of her grandson.

La Bodega is based in an East Village storefront that used to be a real bodega–one that housed a drug-dealing operation. Trying to break up a robbery by competing drug dealers there in 1995, police officer Keith Prunty was shot and paralyzed.

“Our mission is to help families so that they can in turn help the drug user and help themselves,” says La Bodega’s founder and director Carol Shapiro, who served as an assistant commissioner of corrections in the Dinkins administration. “Because there are many victims here, not just the user.”

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La Bodega reflects a small but increasingly significant trend toward holistic, community-based referral, counseling, advocacy and case management programs that serve as a front-end buffer for government agencies dealing with issues like child abuse. It is a demonstration project, the first of its kind for addicts, created at a time when policymakers are proposing new neighborhood-specific networks of family support services. Shapiro and her colleagues at La Bodega’s parent organization, the Vera Institute of Justice, hope their project will be a model for future community support services in low-income neighborhoods. It is not unlike the sort of neighborhood center outlined in Children’s Services Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta’s strategic plan for reforming child welfare services.

Since its doors opened last fall, La Bodega has put most of its energy into working with more than 30 families. Every one of the 10 employees is bilingual in Spanish and English, and include a social worker, a former police officer, a domestic violence advocate, a drug counselor, and a family therapist. They serve a densely populated 24-square block area east of Avenue A between Houston and 6th streets, providing a range of supports, including 24-hour crisis intervention, case management, walk-in counseling, relapse prevention, referrals to drug treatment and health clinics, and advocacy in court.

La Bodega was founded on the belief that a straightforward, punitive approach to drug addiction fails to stem the use of drugs. If the ultimate goal of law enforcement is to make communities safer, then bouncing people back and forth from the streets to prison is only a temporary solution. Vera Institute staffers decided strengthening troubled families was the best route to take, improving access to all the social services available in the community. They hashed out the concept for the center, chose a neighborhood where it would be most useful, and put together a national board of advisers–including prominent academics, physicians and criminal justice officials from Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix–to make sure their findings would have an impact beyond New York. Then they enlisted support from the Clinton administration, which came through with funding.

La Bodega has also brought the Giuliani administration on board. The center is jointly funded by the Mayor’s Office of the Criminal Justice Coordinator, the U.S. Department of Justice, the Drug Policy Foundation and by private contributions.

At first glance, the mayor’s support for a program promoting prevention and counseling rather than punishment seems at variance with his hard-line approach to crime. Under Giuliani, the police department has ratcheted up the rate of drug arrests. From 1991 to 1995, the annual number of arrests on misdemeanor drug charges–which include possession, small-quantity sales and simple assaults–nearly doubled to a total of 52,879. Meanwhile, drug convictions have increased by about 10 percent.

Yet these days, conviction does not always lead to prison. Some judges, prosecutors and a handful of political leaders are taking a more creative approach, advocating alternative sentences for first-time and nonviolent offenders. This can include community service, drug treatment–and a return to the family. And while attendance at La Bodega is never mandated by the courts, it can serve as the glue that holds together all the other elements for a family with a member on parole or probation.

“Sending someone to prison for a year or two without changing their behavior doesn’t change the problem,” explains city Probation Commissioner Raoul Russi. “La Bodega is a model that I think will have some success. We’ve tried everything else.”

Police Commissioner Howard Safir has also supported the crisis center, appearing at a June fundraiser. He says community-based family services could become an important force. “Law enforcement is not the solution, but the law enforcement holds the line,” he explains. “Community courts and alternative sentencing aren’t statistically successful yet, but we’re heading in that direction.”

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Even with this chorus of support, however, center employees regularly find themselves dealing with conflicts between their clients and city agencies. It’s the nature of the business.

“These are families who don’t trust these systems,” says Shapiro. “We are neutral. We manage a fine line working the systems that have generally treated poor people with little respect and interest.” Working cooperatively with government is often necessary simply because law enforcement and child welfare are part of everyday life for many residents in low-income neighborhoods, she explains. “We’re always going to have police, probation, and child welfare. The challenge is to make them more effective in addressing the complex issues surrounding substance abuse.”

One of the most rigid policies La Bodega has come up against is the ‘One Strike and You’re Out’ eviction rule for residents of public housing caught using drugs. Often, the primary tenant is not the drug user; rather, a child, grandchild or other relative is discovered using or selling drugs and family members all face the possibility of losing their home.

In four such cases, La Bodega staff have stepped in, hooked up the families with city social workers and gone to Housing Court to try to convince the judge to at least delay evictions while the drug problem is confronted. At least two of the families will be allowed to stay in public housing as a result of La Bodega’s work, and the others are trying to work out an agreement to keep their apartments.

Punishment is not the only problem. Shapiro and others contend that the most common methods of drug treatment are often ineffective for low-income New Yorkers. Of the 1,900 people placed in nonresidential treatment programs by the city’s department of probation in 1995, for example, more than half dropped out within 37 days. Yet residential programs often don’t work much better.

“Conventional drug treatment says put someone far away from where they live,” says Shapiro, who used to run boot camps for men and teenage boys at Rikers Island. The problem, she says, is that when they return to their home, nothing has changed there. It’s like dropping back to earth from another planet.

The answer, she says, is to place residential treatment programs in the neighborhoods where people have their homes. That way, drug users change their habits while they remain in the community, in contact with their family and other support systems and in proximity to their old haunts. The return home, then, is not a momentous crisis fraught with temptations. It fits with the underlying idea of La Bodega: locate a crisis center where a drug deal went bad, place the solutions where the problems lie.

“If you’re poor and you end up in the criminal justice system, drug treatment is punishment,” Shapiro says. “Families don’t figure into that. Yet families are a drug user’s best chance to keep off drugs. Families can be a resource in a system that has been focused on the individuals that are arrested.”

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37-year-old John Quiles had been in and out of prison for 15 years and his drug addiction had only grown worse. “I’ve been doing drugs since I was twelve,” says the soft-spoken, bespectacled man. “Heroin, cocaine. I didn’t understand that what I had was a disease. I did stick-ups and robberies and sold things out of my house. I got arrested and put in jail. They say jail is rehabilitation. It isn’t. You learn to commit better crimes.”

His eyes settle on his mother, who sits quietly across the room. For years, the two of them hardly communicated.

Three days after a two-year stint in jail, Quiles, who has four children, was back to shooting up. After the police began to pursue him again, he fled to Puerto Rico, where he lived for four years until he was arrested and extradited back to New York. In February of 1997, he won parole. But the grip of his addiction was too strong. “It was really easy for me to buy a beer, and in a few days, I was shooting cocaine and heroin.”

His family had nearly given up on him. Yet after he suffered a debilitating seizure and nervous breakdown, his mother checked him into the hospital. It was then he realized he had to change his life. “I thought I was gonna die,” he says. “I’m sick, but my whole family gets affected. I didn’t have the effort to put into my relationships.”

So he joined a 12-step program where he met another addict who told him to check out La Bodega. He signed himself up and asked his mother to join him. As a result of the sessions, Quiles and his mother have repaired a deeply damaged relationship, and he is clean, for now. La Bodega also referred Quiles, who is HIV-positive, to a health care clinic.

“Thank God I took that suggestion,” he says. “I’m 37 years old, and I’m learning how to be a man.”

Adam Fifield is a frequent contributor to City Limits.