Flowering Tree substance abuse program closes

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PINE RIDGE, S.D. - Defeating alcohol and drug abuse is often the rallying cry of tribal leaders, yet a program in place for 10 years that acted as a role model for other programs was recently closed by tribal officials.

The Flowering Tree Alcohol and Drug Treatment program for women and their children ran out of funding May 29, and closed it doors by order of the tribal government. Twenty-two women with 33 children were sent back to where they came from, including two who may end up in prison and their children taken away. The others will be at the mercy of social programs for help in their recovery, said Alma Brewer, director of the program.

"I think the tribe is fed up with us. We are always in a financial crisis," Brewer said.

It wasn't the tribe so much that closed the program, it was the federal government and the reduction in funds provided by grants from agencies like the Center for Substance Abuse and Treatment (CSAT), which had funded the program over the past 10 years. In 1992, CSAT provided the funding to create Flowering Tree and three other programs on reservations. Today there are 56 programs and many of them are also feeling the funding pinch, Brewer said.

"They want us to create a sustainable funding level, but how can you do that on the Pine Ridge Reservation, the poorest county in the country, that's stupid. The state has block grants that fund Native Americans, but not on the reservations," Brewer said.

She said she was hopeful the courts would go gentle on the two women who could potentially spend five-years in prison and lose their children. The two have completed 10 months of a 12-month program and have done well, she said.

Other women and children will be put in the hands of the courts and social programs to be monitored, or connected with other counseling programs while some will go back to their homes.

Meanwhile 13 staff members, mostly single parents will be on the street looking for work in an area where jobs are virtually non-existent. That will put a strain on other programs. Brewer said that a few of the women staff members were over 60-years old and raising their grandchildren and their chances of finding employment on or off the reservation at that age was slim.

The program operates on two grants that have in the past run out, but in 2001 with the help of the Running Strong Program, associated with Olympic Athlete and Oglala Tribal Member Billy Mills, Flowering Tree was kept open between funding cycles.

"Flowering Tree provides a place for women and their children to put their lives back together, and to escape the devastating effects of alcohol and drug addiction. It provides an invaluable service, helping them learn to dream again and live in the strength of their culture," Mills said.

This time, said Molly Farrell of Running Strong, her program is not in a position to help.

A grant for $475,000 will take affect in September so Flowering Tree will re-open, but maybe not with Brewer. She said the staff has tried to find the problem and lay blame on something or somebody and she seems to be it, since she is at the head of the program.

"I can point a finger at someone and there are three pointed back at me," she said.

She is also not too optimistic that the program will survive after the next funding cycle runs out. The $475,000 will allow Flowering Tree to operate for nine or 10 months. Not long enough for women to fulfill court ordered treatment of 12 months, and there is no guarantee that it will be refunded by CSAT with financial cuts hitting the federal grant programs.

Even though Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D. has helped in the past, his work in this instance will not benefit the women and children of Flowering Tree. Their fate was sealed with appropriations cuts in the grants programs.

Flowering Tree has graduated 400 women in the past 10 years and there are success stories to tell. The program offered a six-month follow-up program for women who leave the confines of Flowering Tree.

The success of the program, which uses cultural and traditional methods for alcohol and drug treatment, has been recognized by medical professionals from Latvia and Russia. It is also a program other tribes look to for help in setting up their own culture-based treatment facilities and programs.

CSAT data proves that programs like Flowering Tree work. After treatment 86.5 percent of the children were living with their mothers; all children went through alcohol prevention counseling, which reduced the risks to the children as substance abuse offenders. Brewer said that most of the clients in Flowering Tree came from generations of substance abusers.

Following programs such as Flowering Tree, 90 percent of women treated were not involved in the criminal justice system and were employed at an increased rate.

"I had a call from a woman the other day. She graduated from college and bought a car, and is now a nurse's aide, and her daughter also graduated from high school. These things were important to her, something we take for granted," Brewer said.