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Tuesday, January 17, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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At Childhaven, kids can overcome a tough start

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Childhaven


The nonprofit agency is dedicated to the needs of abused and neglected children from birth to age 5. One of its programs, the Crisis Nursery, offers a 24-hour hotline and up to 72 hours of emergency child care for parents needing respite.

Childhaven averages 1,500 referral and counseling calls each year to its hotline.

Parents who are interested in the Drug-Affected Infant Program must be referred through their treatment counselor. About 33 children went through the program last year.

Kassandra Iaukea wrapped herself around her day-care teacher, content to rest there against the teacher's shoulder.

Now almost 4, Kassandra has gone through more than any child ever should: Weaned from a methadone addiction she was born with, Kassandra spent her first 20 months of life in a hospital and in foster care before moving into the home of her birth parents.

To someone untrained, Kassandra might have seemed unfazed by her early experiences, even in the beginning. She laughed and played, enjoyed her baby brother.

She would never have received help if the subtle signs of early trauma had not been identified.

Kassandra is one of the lucky ones. Her mother, Kuuipo Iaukea, took her daughter to Childhaven, one of a dozen organizations that receives assistance from The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy.

The 97-year-old nonprofit, devoted to helping neglected and abused children, makes it possible for children such as Kassandra to catch up developmentally with their peers.

A difficult start

For Kuuipo Iaukea, Childhaven represents another step to ensure that her daughter's childhood is better than her own was.

Iaukea — who grew up in foster homes and a home for neglected children — said she began using marijuana and alcohol at age 11. She had given birth to two children before she was 17. At 20, she gave up her children to relatives because she was using heroin, and a year later she went to prison for selling drugs. She was in and out of prison for drug charges until she was 29 and became pregnant with Kassandra.

This time she had the encouragement of Kassandra's father, Michel Correa-Barrera, who didn't use drugs, to get clean for good. She entered a treatment program through Swedish Medical Center and went on methadone.

Kassandra was born premature at 26 weeks and weighed a little more than 2 pounds. Child Protective Services placed her in foster care when her mother went back to using drugs.

Iaukea once again entered treatment and this time was successful. She won full custody of Kassandra in March 2004, the month she gave birth to her son, who also is enrolled at Childhaven.

Iaukea and Correa-Barrera, who live in Seattle, married in November 2004 and continued to stitch together the family bond, blending family life with work life. Correa-Barrera is a carpenter and Iaukea takes surveys for car dealerships.

Trauma takes a toll

When Kassandra came to Childhaven as a 2-year-old in September 2004, she was typical of drug-affected children, said her caseworker Becky Cumming.

"Her brain development was somewhat affected. She had very low frustration tolerance and threw a lot of tantrums, not having any words to express herself," Cumming said.

The children enrolled in Childhaven's 15-month Drug-Affected Infants Program often have similar symptoms: difficulty communicating, hyperactivity and low tolerance for frustration, and sometimes anxiety from the inability to feel safe and secure.

In Kassandra's case, the more significant concern was her separation anxiety, Cumming said. The fact that Kassandra didn't handle transitions well "was not surprising because she had never lived with her parents before."

Unlike traumatized boys, who are more prone to be hyperactive and to act out, traumatized girls "usually don't upset the adult world," said Dr. Bruce Perry, an internationally regarded psychiatrist and Childhaven consultant.

Instead, he said, "they become compliant and depressed" and aren't treated for their trauma until they begin to act out in ways that affect adults.

Whether that trauma is violence in the home or exposure to drugs in the womb, it all exacts a toll on a small child.

No other part of the body has more nerve cells than the brain, and prior to birth, there is tremendous neurological growth taking place. The growth requires oxygen, and anything — drugs, for example — that interferes with the brain's ability to get that oxygen compromises the "micro-environment" of that brain cell, Perry said.

When the inevitable ups and downs of life come, those who can weather them best are people capable of feeling hope, he said. "But in order to have hope you have to have something to work with": a nervous system capable of abstract thought, the foundation of which begins in infancy.

Making big strides

So Aaron Scarlett, Childhaven caseworker, began home visits with Kassandra and her family. "At first she was kind of wary of me. As time went on she's really opened up. She likes to play with me and she's a great child and very funny. She has a great sense of humor."

Once a month Scarlett visited the home, not only making sure everything was safe and secure, but to meet with the parents and let them know what they could do to help their daughter by repeating the lessons she was learning at Childhaven, such as being encouraged to "use your words" instead of throwing a tantrum.

"In this case, Kuuipo is so good at being a parent," that home visits only reinforce what she's already doing, Scarlett said.

The family met monthly with Cumming and an occupational therapist, who looked at, for instance, why Kassandra was walking on tiptoe. Habit, or shortened muscles?

It turned out to be habit.

At Childhaven, Kassandra also had therapy for her speech and developmental disabilities. After a year in the program, she turned a corner, Cumming said.

"She had so many more words. She could communicate and the tantrums stopped. She was better able to cope with frustration."

Kassandra graduated from the program in December and is now in a special developmental preschool.

"I feel good about being part of this," said her mother, who in March will have been drug-free for three years.

"I've learned to take more time with my children, to sit down with them more. I learned how to give them choices instead of telling them what to do."

And she learned that children "need a lot of love and hugs. You can't give enough."

Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or nbartley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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