Putnam County Youth Bureau offers confidential support
By Alison Rooney
For a child or young teenager coping with a present or absent parent or loved one with a substance abuse problem, there is frequently a sense of isolation and a feeling of “no one else is going through this.”
That’s where Pegasus, a multi-session program offered twice yearly by the Putnam County Youth Bureau, steps in. Pegasus is an educational support group, funded by the county and the New York State Office of Children and Family Services, which offers children ages 6 to 14 a confidential, supportive and informative setting in which to learn about and understand the issues surrounding alcoholism and drug abuse while also coming to understand that this doesn’t define them nor their parent or other family member suffering from an addiction. Always threatened with budget cuts, the program has somehow managed to prevail for more than 25 years in Putnam County.
There are two eight-week-long sessions, one beginning in March, and one in the fall, conducted by licensed social workers and counselors. Referrals come in many forms: there are numerous self-referrals, from family members who may have spotted a brochure or flyer somewhere or read about the program online. Other referrals come from school social workers, religious institutions and programs such as Al-Anon and Alcoholics Anonymous.
Participants get grouped by age into two or three separate groups and can include siblings; many children come back for additional sessions. Adults, who might be a “non-using” parent or grandparent, or a parent with a former substance abuse problem who is now in recovery, meet separately, at the same time; children and adults meet up at the end of the 90-minute sessions. Although being a part of the series from the first session onward is optimal, sometimes referrals come a week or two in, and joining in progress is possible.
In describing the program, Youth Bureau Director Janeen Cunninghan and Program Coordinator and social worker Adriene Iasoni both stressed that first and foremost “the kids know that everything is confidential — what we discuss stays in the room” — except for any mentions of potentially abusive or dangerous situations, as all of the group leaders are “mandated reporters” and must report if any red flags are raised.
“Knowledge varies from child to child,” says Cunningham. “One may not be living with someone actively using. Or, a parent could be incarcerated. Each of them has an individual story, yet they can all relate to each other.” Some of the children are also meeting privately with therapists or other counselors; for others this is their first time expressing what they are going through.
The weekly sessions usually begin with a discussion of the ups and downs of the past week. “We don’t want to fixate on the substance abuse,” explains Iasoni. “We ask them to share what went well for them, to get a sense of what’s going on in each child’s life. We move on to ways kids can understand coping skills.” They use what is called the Four Cs: cause (as in “I didn’t cause this); cure (“I can’t cure this”); cope (“I can learn to cope”); and finally, control.
Activities appropriate to each age level relate back to these ideas. There is an emphasis on separating the addiction from their loved one, and, above all, there is much talk about the importance of sharing feelings. During each session, which takes place between 6 and 7:30 p.m., the group shares a provided pizza dinner.
Cunningham says that inevitably, children who are at first reluctant to attend wind up feeling comfortable, and after that first ice-breaker session “nine out of 10 of them want to come back. They feel a connection. We say to the person who is bringing them — just bring them once and after that there won’t be a struggle to get them to come. The kids really take ownership — it’s great to see, and they also become great at welcoming new kids, especially if they repeat.”
Cunningham finds the program incredibly valuable. “Some kids’ stories will break your heart,” she says. “This is outside of school, which is important because a child might always be the one getting in trouble at school, but there are reasons behind it, and we can look beyond it.”
The next Pegasus session will begin sometime in March and takes place at the Youth Bureau’s facilities in Carmel. The entire program is free, and pre-registration is required. For more information or to register or to speak to someone about referring a child, contact Cunningham at the Putnam Youth Bureau directly at 845-808-1600 or send an email to Janeen.Cunningham@putnamcountyny.gov.