Courts & Crime

Holder pushes effort to help young victims of drug abuse

Attorney General Eric Holder, left, and actor Wendell Pierce.
Attorney General Eric Holder, left, and actor Wendell Pierce. Alexandra Rice / Medill News Service

WASHINGTON — Attorney General Eric Holder got some help Tuesday from cast members of HBO's "The Wire" to announce a new public awareness campaign aimed at addressing how real-life drug abuse affects children.

Actors Jim True-Frost, Wendell Pierce and Sonja Sohn from the television drama, which explored Baltimore's drug culture and ended production in 2008, joined Holder in Washington to discuss the difficulties children in families with drug problems face.

When their parents use drugs, children must deal with a gamut of abuse from physical to sexual to emotional, the actors and activists said.

The new initiative focuses on protecting children by connecting them to law enforcement officials, health professionals, educators and community leaders.

"Protecting youth from exposure to drug abuse is a key priority for this department, and we are unwavering in our commitment to raising awareness about this vital mission and continuing our efforts to assist the most vulnerable victims of the illicit drug industry," Holder said.

Last year, the Justice Department established the Drug Endangered Children Task Force to help the estimated 9 million American children living in drug environments, particularly where there was methamphetamine present.

Deputy Attorney General James Cole illustrated the problem by opening the discussion with some hard-to-comprehend anecdotes. Cole told how drug-involved parents use their children as drug mules and child prostitutes, if they even pay attention to the kids at all.

In one case, the parents actually locked their young daughter outside in a cage during winter, Cole said, while they cooked meth in the kitchen.

Much like that little girl, approximately 3,300 other children were found in the 8,000 meth labs raided in 2003, according to the Justice Department.

"Many of these children are living in squalid conditions," Cole said, "and most are taught the three basic rules at a very early age: Don't talk, don't trust and don't feel — otherwise mommy and daddy go to jail."

True-Frost, Pierce and Sohn all shared stories about their involvement with drug-endangered children both on and off the set.

For Sohn, who played detective Kima on "The Wire," the escalating problem strikes a personal note.

"I was a drug-using mother and there were not a lot of resources out there for me," Sohn said. "I was afraid to reach out for some sort of help because I was afraid my babies would be taken from me."

Pierce, or "Bunk" on the show, talked about a time during one season when he almost quit after wondering if the show was only perpetuating the problem by stereotyping drugs.

But Pierce said he came to realize that the program was helping the problem by illustrating the issue and fostering the discussion of it.

"But if we don't take that step of making sure that law enforcement working with child protection puts those programs into place so that children don't fall through the cracks, then this forum means nothing," Pierce said.

As part of the campaign, there's a website providing resources for both professionals and kids themselves.

(The Medill News Service is a Washington program of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Rice is a graduate student in journalism covering education.)

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