A review of the concerned parent movement in the United States of America


A review of the concerned parent movement in the United States of America


Author: R. A. LINDBLAD
Pages: 41 to 52
Creation Date: 1983/01/01

A review of the concerned parent movement in the United States of America

R. A. LINDBLAD * Associate Director for Policy Development and implementation, National Institute on Drug Abuse, Department of Health and Human Services, Rockville, Maryland, United States of America


Parent groups of various sizes, structures and emphases, whose common goal is to prevent drug use among young people, have grown rapidly in recent years throughout the United States of America. There are now more than 4,000 formal parent organizations striving to achieve a drug-free life for young people. The parent groups have unified into a nation-wide parent movement, which has become the most influential force for the prevention of drug abuse in the country, affecting public laws, policies and attitudes.

The parent groups are undertaking various activities within such areas as prevention, treatment and drug law enforcement to deal with problems of drug abuse. The leaders of the movement are pre-dominantly volunteers, representing a variety of backgrounds. Such leadership has been able to ensure co-operation with social and public health services, and other agencies concerned. The parent movement has proved successful in formulating policies that are conducive to the prevention and reduction of drug abuse, and the recent decline in drug abuse has, to a certain extent, been attributed to the movement.


A social reform is being fuelled by a nation of concerned, frightened and angry parents : parents in the United States of America have united in the fight against drug abuse. Growing with unprecedented enthusiasm and commitment since I 977, there are now more than 4,000 formal parent organizations, with as their goal a nation of drug-free youth. Their nononsense position on drug use by youth is affecting public laws, policies and attitudes; parents have rapidly become the nation's most influential substance abuse prevention force.

* The opinions expressed herein are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) or of any other part of the United States Department of Health and Human Services, nor do they necessarily reflect the official position of the National Federation of Parents for Drug-Free Youth or of any other parent organization.


Parent and family involvement in the treatment and prevention of drug abuse is not a new phenomenon in the United States. The importance of community efforts in combating drug abuse has been apparent at least since the mid-1960s, when Federal legislation directed that addicts should be treated in their home communities, where their families could be involved. The contemporary involvement differs from earlier activities in a number of ways. First, and most apparent, is the explosive nature of its growth. Parent groups have formed in small towns and large cities across the nation so rapidly that accurate counting of all programmes is not now possible. Indeed, growth has been so uniformly distributed and spontaneous that their group activities have become known as the "parent movement". Secondly, the movement differs in assertiveness and responsibility. These groups are taking the responsibility for doing something about the problem themselves, whereas earlier parent involvement relied on the existing service systems and participation was supportive and non-directive. Thirdly, the contemporary movement is developing a body of knowledge of its own. Parent groups are becoming the authorities on how to combat the problems facing them and are communicating their policies, procedures and wisdom to new groups, who in turn expand, revise and improve the methodologies. Credit for the first grass-roots parent activity is generally given to Marsha Manatt, a mother from Atlanta, Georgia, who began to suspect that marijuana was being used at her daughter's birthday party. Concerned, she consulted the parents of her daughter's guests and found they shared her fears, guilt and frustration. Through this sharing, they also found relief and a promise that, unified, they could influence the drug-taking behaviour of their children. The group set limits on their children's activities, such as where they could congregate, when they had to be at home, and how they could spend their money. They also established a monitoring network to chaperone school functions, visit teenage hang-outs and hold regular consultations with teachers, police and other parents. Initial efforts met with resistance from the children and from segments of the community; within six months, however, it became evident that the communal effort was working: drug-taking behaviour was reduced and relations between parents and children were improved.

Dr. Thomas Gleaton, a health education professor at Georgia State University, became interested in the efforts by Marsha Manatt's group to combat drug abuse. He became involved in them and was instrumental in developing the group into the formal structure called PRIDE (Parents Resource Institute for Drug Education). As the name implies, much of PRIDE's early work focused on education and workshops for parents. PRIDE grew to become a regional, state, national and, subsequently, an international organization with over l 5,000 members. The name PRIDE is being used by many newly forming groups.

In the same year, 1977, another group of Georgia parents, led by Sue Rusche, organized themselves because of their concern about the influence of the drug culture on their young people and the ready availability of drugs and drug paraphernalia. That group, called Families in Action (FIA), is credited with the first parental assault on the community drug culture. FIA launched a successful anti-drug-paraphernalia campaign targeted at the growing number of paraphernalia shops in suburban shopping centres. Like PRIDE, FIA has served as a model for other groups throughout the United States, providing literature, consultation and leadership for newly formed groups.

The contributions made by PRIDE and FIA as founding pioneers are significant. To single out their efforts without recognizing other important leaders would, however, be unfair and would misrepresent the spontaneity of parental response. Indeed, parental concern with unifying efforts were simultaneously erupting across the nation. For example, in the same year, in California, Carla Lowe initiated a parental confrontation of the drug problem by working through the local Parent-Teacher Association. Other parents, such as Gerri Silverman in New Jersey, Otto Moulton in Massachusetts, Mary Jacobson in Nebraska, and Joyce Nalepka, Pat Burch and Bob Kramer in Maryland, were leading their counterparts in the war against drug use.

Also in 1977, the planners of the Southeast Drug Conference became interested in the surge of parental activity and chose parents and marijuana research as the theme for their 1978 Conference. The Conference provided considerable media coverage for the parents involved. Concerned parents across the United States learned of the Atlanta activity and requested information and consultation. In Florida, for example, Pat and Bill Barton, parents of a marijuana-smoking youth, got in touch with Manatt, who encouraged them to start their own parent group. The Barton group's effort were structured around the school environment, which they saw as one of the main sources of their community's drug culture. Like the Bartons, hundreds of other parents found support and strength in joining forces against drug use, and by 1980 there were approximately 420 recognized parent groups in 48 states.

The need for national co-ordination became apparent as the number of groups grew and the issues being tackled became more complex. The PRIDE organization under Dr. Gleaton's direction was instrumental in developing a corporate, non-profit structure to serve as a co-ordinating and lobbying entity near Washington, D. C. As a result, in May 1980, a national parent organization, the National Federation of Parents for Drug-Free Youth (NFP), was established in Silver Spring, Maryland, with as their stated goal a nation of drug-free and alcohol-free youth. The first president of the NFP, Bill Barton, worked closely with other elected officers and an advisory board of dedicated volunteer parents to aggressively promote the movement's mission. In November 1980, Bill Barton appeared on a nationally televised programme about contemporary national issues. After describing the nature of the drug problem and what the parents were doing to counter the situation, Barton offered assistance, through the NFP, to parents interested in forming their own groups. Within the next few weeks, 17,000 requests for assistance flooded the NFP headquarters. By 198 1, the work of the NFP was so demanding that it could no longer be conducted solely by volunteers, and it was necessary to hire a full-time employee. Joyce Nalepka, one of the parent group leaders and a member of the NFP advisory board, was selected to fill the position of Executive Secretary. The visible, vocal, contemporary movement was born. It has spread, not as a fad, but as an organized and committed response to the drug problems of the United States.

The NFP is now directed by a working board of volunteer parents, physicians, law-enforcement officers, drug-treatment professionals, scientists, educators, attorneys and community leaders. It produces and distributes educational materials about drug abuse; it assists in the formation of new parent groups; and it serves as a communication link between the movement members and units. (Its newsletter and selected materials are distributed to more than 25,000 interested parents with each mailing.) Located near Washington, D.C., it has successfully influenced members of Congress on legislation and policy relating to drug misuse and abuse.

The value of the movement in all aspects of the drug problem - prevention, treatment and enforcement - has been widely recognized and its cause has been trumpeted by political and social leaders across the country. At its first Conference, the NFP attracted 500 parents from 46 states and four foreign countries. Speakers included the First Lady, Mrs. Nancy Reagan; the United States Surgeon General, Mr. Everett Koop; the Director of the Drug Abuse Policy Office in the White House, Mr. Carlton Turner; the Administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Mr. Francis M. Mullen; the Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), Mr. William Pollin; and an array of somewhat lesser known but highly committed movement leaders.

Why has this movement grown so rapidly and with such commitment?

In part, the movement has grown because the need was so pressing; in part because parents could find answers nowhere else; and in part because of skilled and dedicated leadership.

Drug misuse in the United States grew almost overnight from minute levels among minority populations to commonplace use in every school across the country. In 1978, one out of every nine high school seniors was using marijuana daily, while 60 per cent had tried it ; 93 per cent reported using alcohol and 40 per cent said they participated in drinking bouts at least once a month. By 1979, l 7 per cent of the younger children, aged l 2 - l 7, had tried marijuana and 70 per cent reported using alcohol. Associated with this widespread drug use was the increasing appearance of pro-drug messages by advocates and profiteers of drug use. Lobby groups determined to legalize marijuana were formed ; confusing and conflicting reports about the health consequences of drug use were abundant.

Parents of today's drug-using youth are, as a rule, in their late thirties to early forties, having grown up during the 1950s, a time when citizens looked to the Federal Government to solve social problems. Since these parents were reared in a relatively drug-free society, it was an embarrassing acknowledgment of parental failure to have drug-using children. A nation of worried parents waited for the Government or science to solve the drug problem ; it only became worse. There was a general feeling among parents of nihilism and hopelessness in dealing with the drug problem. The parent movement has offered hope and strength. Parents have learned that their concerns are shared, and they are now saying in a unified voice : "We are not going to stand for drug misuse among our youth any more. We are going to do something about the problem."

No social movement or reform grows with such phenomenal success without exceptional leadership. Parent movement leadership has been truly amazing ; such dedication, energy and enthusiasm could only be duplicated in other situations where people are defending and fighting for their loved ones. This leadership is almost completely made up of volunteers representing a variety of backgrounds. Some are professionals, but most are lay persons, their common credential that of being a concerned mother or father. The leadership has made willing use of well-established community organization principles. Leaders position themselves to ensure interrelations with other social, public-health, or service efforts. Board membership is strategically developed, but board members are usually asked only to provide advisory functions, executive authority remaining with the parent officers. Typical boards include physicians, attorneys, law-enforcement officers or corporate executives. Support from key community leaders is sought but not required. Indeed, in some instances, a community leader such as a school official could become the centre of group efforts to change school policy.

What do parent groups do?

Parent groups vary in size, structure, and emphasis, but all are family- oriented, and all are firmly against the use of any and all drugs by youth. Formal names and acronyms tell much about group missions ; examples include PACT (Parents and Children Together); MADD (Mothers against Drunk Driving); NIP (Naples Informed Parents); COPE (Concerned Organization of Parents to Educate); Straight Inc.; Tough Love; CARE (Community Awareness Resources Exchange) and CAADA (Community Action Against Drug Abuse).

A NIDA report has categorized the parent groups into several overlapping models;

  1. Community-wide, self-initiated groups of parents, who form an independent organization to focus on the prevention of drug abuse. These groups usually have an all-volunteer staff, an elected leadership, a board of directors and several working committees;

  2. School-based multi-purpose organizations of parents who include drug-abuse prevention in their total approach to school-related issues;

  3. Community-wide, multi-purpose organizations (whose members are predominantly parents), which undertake drug-abuse prevention as part of a larger focus, for example, the Lions' Clubs;

  4. Semi-independent parents' groups, which are part of existing treatment and prevention programmes and continue to rely heavily on such programmes for technical assistance and guidance;

  5. Dependent parent groups, which, unlike the other models, do not generally undertake self-initiated action or any directed activity. They are recipients of services from providers of treatment or prevention providers, for example, parent training or parent and youth counselling;

  6. Informal groups of parents, who plan parent-action approaches to drug-abuse prevention in their immediate neighbourhood or housing development. These informal parent peer groups are not incorporated and do not usually have an elected leadership. They are primarily involved in receiving parent education and providing self-help to the participants.

Parent activities are generally determined by perceived community drug problems: one group may direct its attention towards getting legislation enacted or changed, while another may work with school administrations to insist on drug-free schools. In Naples, Florida, for example, the NIP group forged an anti-drug programme which:

  1. Updated a school conduct code, publicized it in local newspapers, and sent it to all parents;

  2. Required telephone communication between parents and school to check on students suspected of playing truant;

  3. Had volunteers from the sheriffs office assigned to the high school;

  4. Adopted and enforced strict rules regarding drug use, with expulsion the penalty for a second violation;

  5. Assigned parent groups to watch students' out-of-school activities ;

  6. Placed an unmarked van in the school parking lot to photograph suspected drug-dealing.

Other efforts are not so radical. In the Washington D. C. area, a local drugstore chain sponsored a parent group network of community work-shops on training in parent leadership. This training was designed : (a) to inform parents about drug abuse ; and (b) to help them to get involved with their children while maintaining a consistent and clear message of saying "no" to drug use. The techniques taught were meant to help the children to say "no" to drug-taking peer pressure and to support children and parents by encouraging them to share common problems and concerns.

A Sellersville, Pennsylvania, parent group's philosophy is "to get parents to act like people", arguing that they wouldn't take abusive, violent behaviour from someone else, so why should they take it from their children ? Here, concerned parents banded together to set and maintain fair but firm limits for children who were creating a crisis within the family. Parents begin by identifying one type of behaviour from their child that is unacceptable ; group members then band together to form a support system around a desired behaviour change. Parents are taught to take a stand on both acceptable and unacceptable behaviour while continuing to express love and concern. This group, appropriately named "Tough Love", has developed self-help parenting manuals, which are gaining rapid and widespread acceptance, and "chapters" of the programme are rapidly spreading across the nation.

Many groups have focused on legislative or policy change through organized lobbying. Such lobbying activities include :

  1. Fighting all proposals that would legalize marijuana or in any way make it more readily available ;

  2. Encouraging state legislation to ban the sale of drug-use paraphernalia (model anti-paraphernalia legislation has been developed and at least 36 of the states now have laws against marketing such equipment) ;

  3. Encouraging legislation to ban the sale of "look-alike" drugs ;

  4. Encouraging legislation making it a Federal offence to sell or distribute narcotics near schools ;

  5. Pursuing the total eradication of domestic marijuana crops ;

  6. Calling for strict laws on drunken driving ;

  7. Calling for strict laws prohibiting the sale of alcohol to minors ;

  8. Supporting the recently enacted exception to the Posse comitatus law, which now permits a meaningful co-operation between military and civilian law-enforcement officials (for example, sharing equipment, exchanging surveillance information and jointly training staff).

In addition, in one of the most recent areas of legislative initiative, states have been encouraged to enact "forfeiture laws", which would allow seized assets of drug dealers to be used to combat drug abuse. Model legislation has been developed, and at least 14 states have already enacted state laws which will enventually make it possible to use this means of garnering funds to fight drug abuse.

The NFP and its membership organizations are constantly monitoring and fighting advertising and media messages that support or encourage drug use. For example, one major pharmaceutical company manufactures a perfume named "Opium". This perfume is being advertised with the suggestion that love, adventure and even ecstasy are assured with its use. The subtle correlate message, says the NFP, is a positive promotion of the drug opium. Similarly, another firm markets skin-care products named "Cocaine", and still another marketed product is called "Sensemilla". Companies manufacturing these products have been the target of a major letter-writing campaign organized by parent groups, who are also encouraging their members not to purchase any products manufactured by these firms. In Florida, the parent movement was instrumental in bringing about a decision by the state Pediatric Society to boycott medical products manufactured by the pharmaceutical firm making "Opium" perfume.

Numerous stores and retail firms have altered their marketing inventories as a result of the parents' influence. For example, a chain of retail shops no longer stocks magazines that promote drug use, and a department- store chain has stopped selling products that are bought by young people to hide their drugs. In Dallas, Texas, the corporate president of a national chain of convenience stores was alerted by a parent group to the fact that his stores were selling papers used by young people to make marijuana cigarettes. He not only agreed to stop his stores from selling the paper products but became so interested in parent movement activities that he has been made a member of the board of directors of the PRIDE organization.

The movement has spent a great deal of time monitoring publications of the Federal Government. The NFP has reviewed most, if not all, of the NIDA prevention publications in order to spot ambiguous messages that could be interpreted as being anything other than firmly against all drug use. As a result of these efforts, several NIDA publications have been revised or removed from circulation. Similarly, the NFP has been eager to work with NIDA and other Federal agencies in developing publications appropriate to the parents'cause. Parents, Peers and Pot, published by NIDA, was written by Marsha Manatt, the mother credited with starting the first parent activity at Atlanta, and has been the most in demand of all the Institute's publications; it is seen even today as one of the most important guidebooks of the movement.

In addition to monitoring and criticizing public messages about drug-taking behaviour, parent groups have encouraged prestigious newspapers and major radio and television networks to assume national leadership in anti-drug campaigns, for example by providing information about the harmful effects of drugs and alcohol. The FIA, for example, persuaded a satellite television network to broadcast spot announcements against marijuana use. The FIA has recently entered into a contractual agreement with a nationally syndicated newspaper publication firm to produce a bi-weekly column on drug abuse called "Fighting back". In Pittsburg, a television station co-operated with local parents to launch an anti-drug programme called "The Chemical People", which generated so much interest that it will soon be broadcast nationally. The NFP is working with the television station and will provide technical assistance for community action to interested parties after the national broadcasts.

Role of the Government

The Federal Government does not directly fund any portion of the parent movement. It has, however, been extremely helpful and has facilitated the movement's goal and activities in a variety of ways, ranging from public endorsement by the President and the First Lady to making parent-oriented prevention material available for distribution to the public.

The White House has played an important role in the promotion of the movement. President Ronald Reagan has on numerous public occasions identified drug abuse as a major national problem. While he acknowledges the importance of control activities in limiting the spread of drugs, he has repeatedly stated that only through reducing the demand for drugs, i. e. through prevention, can the nation hope for relief from the problem. Mrs. Reagan has identified drug abuse among youth as a national issue about which she feels great personal concern. In 1982, she invited parent group leaders and board members of the NFP to the White House to discuss what had been accomplished by the parent groups and to identify areas needing more attention. Representatives of over 2,000 parent groups travelled at their own expense to participate in the discussion at that meeting. The First Lady stated : "We all have the same concern that drug abuse is one of the most serious problems our country faces. Parents are the answer. It [drug abuse] is the most democratic illness there is." 1 Mrs. Reagan then pledged herself to help draw public attention to the issue, and senior policy executives voiced their support and commitment to the parent movement. While in Washington for the White House meeting, NFP board members also met senators, congressmen, and senior officials of drug-abuse prevention and control agencies, where NFP was given further assurances of support.

Since that meeting, endorsement from the White House has continued. The importance of the parent movement has been identified in Federal Strategy for Prevention of Drug Abuse and Drug Trafficking, 1982, recently published by the White House and technical assistance to parent groups has been made available on request by Federal agencies such as NIDA, DEA, ACTION and FDA.

1 National Federation of Parents for Drug-Free Youth, Newsletter, winter 1982.

NIDA has provided indirect funding for a number of activities of the parents movement. It has sponsored workshops, conferences and forums; published data and prevention material for distribution by parent groups; developed guidebooks; and provided transportation for consultants to give technical assistance and improve collaboration. ACTION, the Federal agency concerned with volunteerism, has also provided broad endorsement and funds for technical assistance, newsletters and publications and, most recently, for the development of state-wide parent conferences and networks.

The role of the state governments varies from one state to another, but generally there is mutual support and collaboration. States receive funds for drug-abuse treatment and prevention through the Federal Block Grant programme. These funds, coupled with state revenues, are used in ways that the states decide are best able to meet their drug-abuse needs. Some states have, accordingly, devoted many of their resources to the parent movement, and parent groups have received funds to buy films, posters and other materials; to pay or provide for transportation of speakers; to support newsletters; or to sponsor school prevention campaigns. Georgia, for example, provides funds for many PRIDE activities, such as regional workshops and clearing-house functions. Florida state funds have been earmarked for parent-related training activities, including training in parent effectiveness, volunteer work in schools, and training in ways to influence legislation. In Massachusetts, plans have been made to award a state-funded contract for a project demonstrating a "model" parent action programme. Other states have elected to support the parent movement in less direct ways but have funded state-wide prevention projects that have interfaced with parent groups.

Other funding

In addition to the indirect and direct funds garnered from government bodies, parent groups rely on donations, membership dues, book and pamphlet sales, and general fund-raising activities. Many private-sector sources such as individuals, companies and corporate structures, have donated considerable money, facilities, materials and services to the cause.

Service clubs such as the Lions' Clubs have publicly endorsed the movement and have made many of their resources available. The most visible example of private-sector funding of parents' efforts in collaboration with the Lions' Clubs can be seen in Texas, where private donations from, a wealthy businessman were used to support joint projects of parent groups and the Texas Lions' Club in a state-directed campaign called "The Texas War on Drugs". Buses brought parents to the state capital to lobby legislators, letter-writing campaigns were started, newsletters were developed and, last year alone, five new pieces of anti-drug legislation were added to the Texas statutes.

Future directions

As would be expected, such a widely diversified movement has been the focus of some resistance and criticism. Some professionals have argued that the movement is not professionally qualified to concern itself with treatment and prevention issues and will therefore soon become ineffective after the glamour and excitement of the movement's growing thrust wear off. Other critics have argued that the movement is made up primarily of white middle- class parents and does not therefore represent the total array of drug users and, by implication, is limited in its future effectiveness. On both points, however, the number of critics appears to be diminishing as more and more professionals join the movement and as special efforts are made to penetrate minority populations.

While there are no evaluations of the outcome of the parent movement, there are clear examples of success, for example when the movement has been able to change laws, rid communities of paraphernalia shops and change school policies. And although parent groups would not claim total credit, it is interesting to note that after two decades of increase, drug abuse among youth has started to decline in the United States. In fact, the first evidence of reversal and decline was reported in 1978, one year after the inception of the parent movement.

The long-term vitality of the movement remains uncertain ; its immediate future, however, is one of continued strength and growth. At least in part, the future direction of the parent movement is dependent upon the nature and extent of the nation's drug problem. The First Lady perhaps best summarized the relationship in her recent address to the NFP by asking : "Wouldn't it be wonderful if we didn't have to have these conferences anymore ?"


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