At one child care center in Huntington, lights are dim, sounds are soft and fragrances are kept to a minimum. That's because these are triggers that evoke strong reactions from the infants and toddlers inside.
River Valley CARES in Huntington's West End opened in May to help children aged 6 months to 2 years who were exposed to drugs while in their mothers' wombs. They are the youngest and most innocent victims of the misuse of drugs in the area.
Children are divided into two classrooms of eight so that there are no more than three children per staff person. The center opened in May with six children.
In the room where children sleep and spend much of their time, the only light is sunlight coming through slits in blinds. Soft lullabies play in the background. Adults refrain from using lotions or perfumes.
Janie Fuller, executive director of River Valley Child Development Services, told The Herald-Dispatch reporter Bishop Nash that all of the first group of six have sensory issues with light, sound and smells. All six of the first group were exposed to drugs in utero, Fuller said: two with methamphetamine, two with heroin, one with marijuana and another with Xanax.
It's a program that could be duplicated elsewhere in West Virginia if the money can be found, and it should. Drug treatment has traditionally lagged behind treatment of other disorders, and it has focused on getting addicts sober. Children of addicts have been a secondary or tertiary concern. As RV CARES shows, that's changing.
RV CARES is entirely grant funded, chiefly from a $10,000 per child allotment through state funding. Ultimately, the center will fan out with broader services to include family support classes and evening hours. Building a good relationship with the whole family, rather than simply being an outlet for child care, is key to repairing those broken units, Fuller said.
"The center of everything we do here and every decision we make is that child and what that child needs, and then we work on everything around it," Fuller said. "That will ultimately cause a ripple effect into the families as a whole."
RV CARES is not the first facility dedicated to helping small children who have been harmed by a parent's drug use. Cabell Huntington Hospital established a therapeutic center for children suffering from neonatal abstinence syndrome several years ago, and Lily's Place was established in Huntington shortly after to help these young victims.
The problem could be duplicating efforts such as River Valley CARES in communities smaller than the Huntington area. Most communities in West Virginia fit that description.
People running for office like to talk about cutting the fat out of government and eliminating fraud and waste. That's a good idea, and once the frivolous spending is reduced, let's do something good with the money and put it toward these helpless, innocent victims of the drug epidemic so we can begin to heal the generation that's been harmed the most.
We're into at least the second generation of these children. We have to stop it before it hits the third or fourth.