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Protecting Children from Substance Abuse: Lessons from Free to Grow Head Start Partnerships

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Substance abuse is one of the most serious health concerns facing America. According to a 1999 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report, more than one-quarter of the deaths in the United States each year are directly or indirectly caused by alcohol, illicit drug, or tobacco use. Beyond health concerns, substance abuse is also associated with prenatal drug exposure, family violence, child abuse, crime, neighborhood gang activity, and unemployment. The Free to Grow initiative targets families and neighborhoods of Head Start children with the goal of creating positive changes that will free young children to grow and flourish. The program simultaneously protects these children from substance abuse and the problems associated with it. The Free to Grow prevention approach is based on the growing body of research that demonstrates how family and neighborhood characteristics can heighten or moderate the risk of developing substance abuse problems. This report discusses the implementation of five pilot projects across the United States that completed both phases of the Free to Grow Head Start five-year model substance abuse prevention programs for economically disadvantaged preschool children. It details how the models developed, outlines challenges that were encountered, explains how problems were overcome, and provides lessons for guiding future substance abuse prevention efforts that focus on the early childhood period.