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Breaking the cycle

Editor's note: This story is part of a joint effort by the Mail Tribune, KOBI Channel 5 and the Jackson County Child Abuse Network to educate the public about the extent of child abuse locally and what Rogue Valley residents can do about it. Three more stories are planned on Mondays starting April 12 as part of child abuse awareness month.

Adrianna Poot didn't want to pass on her parents' painful legacy of drug use, child abuse and neglect. But she did.

"I used to stick my daughter in a highchair in the morning when she was 1 or 2 years old," said Poot, of Medford. "I'd give her something to eat, turn on a video and just leave her there. Then I'd go back to bed because I'd been up all night. Doing drugs. Doing whatever."

Addiction, violence, poverty and/or mental health issues among people such as Poot often can be traced to their own childhood experiences of neglect or abuse. These parents need support in learning proper parenting skills because they lacked positive role models and mentors themselves, said Mary-Curtis Gramley, director of the Family Nurturing Center.

"A child's ability to explore his world in a positive manner stems from feeling safe and secure," Gramley said. "When children haven't been able to develop that trust, they don't explore. And there's no reason to trust if your diaper is never changed or you are not fed adequately or you cried yourself to sleep because you were hungry."

Today, Poot, 31, is working hard to heal the damage done to her now 9-year-old daughter. And to nurture her 16-month-old son.

"You have to change everything. It takes a lot of practice to learn how to live a different way," Poot said. "But when your kids are hanging in the balance, nothing is too hard."

Born to a drug-addicted mother and a violent, criminal father, Poot was removed from her home and made a ward of the state by age 3.

"My mom was hooked on heroin. My dad robbed banks. Their relationship between each other was abusive," she said, adding both her birth parents now are dead.

In and out of foster and group homes for six years, Poot was adopted by a couple at age 9. But the relationship was not an easy one for Poot or her adoptive parents, she said.

"I was really angry and rebellious," Poot said.

When her adoptive parents sent her to live in a group home, Poot ran away.

"I was out on the streets by the time I was 12, fending for myself," she said.

Poot ended up in an abusive relationship with her daughter's father. She didn't start using drugs until after Angela was born. She was 22 years old, Poot said.

"I prided myself on being the kind of person who would never use drugs while I was pregnant," she said. But a lifetime of unstable relationships and untreated depression made self-medicating an easy path to addiction, she said.

"I let people hurt me," Poot said. "I don't know why. Then I got introduced to the meth and the pipe. I loved it. I loved the way it made me feel."

Poot thought she had things under control, even as she tried to hide her drug abuse from family and friends. But it got to the point where meth was more important to Poot than her daughter, she said.

"I just wasn't there anymore," she said.

By the time her daughter was 5 or 6, she was left to fend for herself as Poot's drug use escalated.

"My daughter had to talk to me through the (bedroom) door," Poot said. "I didn't want her to see what I was doing. I was either too strung out or coming down."

Poot said the damage she did to her daughter while she was using drugs still haunts her. The missed days. The blank spots in her own memory.

"I lost a lot with my daughter," Poot said. "It scares me to death. I don't remember a lot of things. I'm sure it's affected her. But I can still be a good mom. I can still show her I love her. It's so simple. But it's huge."

Sobriety lessons learned at OnTrack's Moms Program and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, parenting skills acquired at the Family Nurturing Center and Community Family Court, and insights gained in her Women Against Violence group are all helping Poot become the kind of mother she never had. The kind of mother every child deserves.

"I used to stuff my feelings, and then I'd leak them all over the place," she said. "I never figured out what was really bothering me. Now I'm learning how to manage my feelings."

Neglect may leave no physical mark on an infant or a toddler, but the emotional fallout can last a lifetime, Gramley said.

"We're understanding more and more what children need," she said. "There can be an arrested capacity to relate to people, to experience the joy of friendships, that feeling of reciprocity and contentment."

Neglect is an insidious form of abuse that can be legally difficult to define, said Dr. Kerri Hecox, of the Children's Advocacy Center.

"It is one of the hardest ones to prove," she said. "But it is very damaging."

Proper brain development can be damaged by neglect. Children under 2 need to interact positively and frequently with nurturing adults in order to learn how to form trusting relationships. Without regular physical touch, eye-to-eye contact, verbal stimulation and other positive reinforcement, a child can experience critical and ongoing damage, Hecox said.

"The younger a child is, the more impact neglect has on them," Hecox said. "Teens can suffer from neglect. But it is not as likely to create lifelong damage."

Poot's love affair with meth lasted into a new relationship with her current boyfriend. And into her pregnancy with their son, Anthony.

"I always promised myself I would never use drugs if I ever got pregnant again," she said. "But I did."

Poot's first prenatal exam showed she was using meth. Doctors are mandatory reporters of child abuse or neglect. The authorities were contacted. Poot's daughter was removed from her home and placed in foster care.

Often there is some legal intervention that alerts child welfare workers that there is a potential risk to a child, said Susie Wahl, Community Family Court coordinator.

About a third of the clients in Family Court have had criminal charges filed against them. But they cannot have active criminal charges pending when they enter the program, she said.

Poot entered the Moms Program at OnTrack, then Family Court in April 2008.

It takes courage and determination to break the chain of inter-generational child neglect and abuse, said Wahl.

"Adrianna is really a remarkable example of positive change," said Wahl.

The coping skills Poot learned in the various programs have helped her be a more supportive parent and a better person. Before heading off to night school to complete her general equivalency diploma, Poot helps Angela with her homework each afternoon. She also attends parent-teacher conferences and makes a point of offering consistent and positive feedback.

"Her grades are coming up," said Poot. "And she's a great big sister (to Anthony). She's very patient with him."

Anthony is a curious, active little boy. He's walking and starting to talk. He spends two afternoons a week at the Family Nurturing Center's therapeutic respite nursery.

"He gets to interact with other kids," she said.

Poot wants to graduate and then help out at the Moms Program, she said.

"I want to give back a little," Poot said. "But the main thing for me is I want to break the cycle for my kids. It's important for me."

Communities must support families who are breaking the cycle of abuse. Otherwise they are simply contributing to the next generation of abused and neglected children, said Rita Sullivan, director of OnTrack.

Sullivan said Poot's insights and experiences, combined with a nonjudgmental understanding of addiction and abuse, may one day make her a valuable employee.

"But if all she ever does is provide a clean, sober and nonabusive environment for her children, then her walk across this planet has been worth it," Sullivan said. "She will have broken the cycle."

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or e-mail sspecht@mailtribune.com.

Adrianna Poot, 31, holds her 16-month-old son, Anthony, in their Medford apartment. Poot is learning better parenting skills while recovering from drug abuse. - Bbo Pennell