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Family advocate can relate to her clients

February 21, 2005|by MARLO BARNHART

marlob@herald-mail.com

As a family advocate hired to support Washington County families caring for children with mental health issues, Vivian Miller says she knows what many of them are facing. And it's not from reading about it in books.

"I have a 12-year-old son with four mental disorders so I know what it's like," Miller said from her office at 33 W. Washington St., Room 210.

When she first came on board, Miller sent out 300 letters in December to anyone and everyone she could think of who would be interested in the issues families face with such children, both at home and at school.

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"I wanted them to know there is no cost associated with any of the services I offer," Miller said. "And I wanted them to know they aren't alone."

A Garrett County native, Miller, 36, has a 19-year-old daughter from her first marriage and a 12-year-old boy from her second marriage. Her son, while highly functional, can't sit still or focus on tasks.

"He has attention deficit disorder, oppositional defiant disorder and perseverance developmental disorder," Miller said. "And he is also autistic."

She said she noticed certain behavior traits when he was just three months old. As he grew, these traits became more noticeable and started to affect his development.

By the age of 6, he was seeing a therapist.

Through the years, Miller said she felt very alone in her struggle to see that her son's needs were being met. "I fought to get him where he is now, which is in private school, but it's helping," Miller said.

Last spring, Miller attended a meeting sponsored by the Washington County Community Partnership for Families and Children. "As a parent I started to volunteer to help out because there are a lot of frustrated parents out there," she said.

This year Miller will be one of the speakers at this year's program. "I'll tell my story about my son and how I navigate through the system for him."

After she had been volunteering for a while, Miller was approached last summer when the Maryland Coalition of Families for Children's Mental Health decided to hire a child advocate for Washington County.

"One of the requirements was that I had to be a parent of a child with special needs," Miller said.

A graduate of Northern High School in Accident, Md., Miller is currently taking classes at Villa Maria residential treatment center in Baltimore to learn more about available programs.

"What I do know is that these children often try very hard but they just don't have the tools to cope," Miller said. Over the years, she has had to quit four jobs because of her son's problems.

While Miller has already begun planning a support group, lobbying to restore state budget cuts and other activities, she also is encouraging parents to take advantage of two upcoming programs designed for families that have children with special needs.

- Saturday, March 12, from 8:30 a.m. to noon at Elgin Station Community Center, 40 Elgin Blvd., - Families Advocating and Navigating in the mental health systems. A social worker and parents of special-needs children - including Miller - will hold a discussion on the children's mental health system in Washington County. Call 240-313-2092 no later than March 4.

- Saturday, March 19, at 9 a.m. at South Hagerstown High School, an all-morning discussion and information session will feature several speakers addressing the No Child Left Behind Act and how it affects special-needs children. Register by Feb. 28 by calling 301-766-8221.

The first family advocate assigned to Washington County, Miller works for the Maryland Coalition of Families for Children's Mental Health which is based in Columbia, Md. She shares office space with the Washington County Community Partnership for Children and Families.

"I love children and I don't care what's wrong with them," Miller said. "I believe all children should be seen and heard."

To reach her, call 240-313-2089 or e-mail her at vmiller@ washco-md.net.

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