Special Reports

Help for addicted youth is minimal

A ward in one of the austere rooms at the Juvenile Services Center. Some  rooms have two beds and two wards others have one. Books are about the only  entertainment when you are locked in. David Middlecamp 10-5-6
A ward in one of the austere rooms at the Juvenile Services Center. Some rooms have two beds and two wards others have one. Books are about the only entertainment when you are locked in. David Middlecamp 10-5-6

While local teens who use drugs continue to favor alcohol and marijuana, their use of methamphetamine is rising.

The number of high schoolers using meth has doubled in the past two years, according to a recent survey. Officials with the county's juvenile hall report that as many as 450 youths each year spend time there for meth-related crimes.

The problem is exacerbated by a lack of space and resources to treat addicted youths. Local group homes are not equipped to take teens with severe drug and alcohol problems, and out-of-county placement facilities are costly.

So youths are left with an already overcrowded juvenile hall as the only local place to help them overcome meth.

"I hate to see so many kids shackled with something that is so self-destructive and that injures everyone around them," said Deputy District Attorney Andrew Baird, who prosecutes youth cases.

Over the past 10 years, Baird said he has seen meth go from nearly nothing to an overwhelming majority of his caseload. He estimates that 95 percent of the cases in which youths are charged for being under the influence are now meth-related.

He attributes the rise to meth being cheaper and easier to get than other hard drugs. And he laments meth's destructiveness.

"You see some kids that come in and they are smart, have great personalities," he said. "... You work with them, and you think there is a really good chance. And then you don't see them for a while. You find out they have run away -- that they are using again."

Prevalence

County prosecutors and probation officials don't keep official tallies on youth crimes involving meth. But it's clear that the drug's popularity is rising.

Students in fifth, seventh, ninth and 11th grades are polled about their drug and alcohol use (and other health and safety issues) every two years in the county education department's Healthy Kids Survey.

In the most recent one from October 2005, 63 11th-graders reported they had used meth at least once, up from 32 in the 2003 survey. Nearly the same number said they had used meth four or more times.

The survey doesn't ask younger children about meth, but officials say they are beginning to see usage among middle school students.

Punishment

When a teen is busted for a meth-related crime, juvenile court has many options, including sentencing him to juvenile hall or outpatient treatment or sending him home to be closely watched by counselors and family.

"Meth is so insidious and the youngsters involved are so at risk to themselves and others that we will often make the decision to detain them," said Gary Joralemon, juvenile hall superintendent.

In juvenile hall, meth users are forced off the drug because they don't have access to it. The facility has begun offering an additional treatment program for a dozen alcoholand drug-addicted teens at a time. The program offers intensive drug and alcohol rehabilitation, requiring family participation.

This year, nine of the yearlong program's participants are meth addicts.

Many teens are turned away from the program, though, and placed into intense home super- vision services, said Jim Salio, Probation Division manager.

"We just don't have any more beds to devote to the program," Salio said.

Officials put youth addicts into home supervision programs more often than they want because outpatient treatment is typically outside the county and costly, and juvenile hall--built to hold 45 -- is overcrowded a quarter of the time.

Meth addicts ages 13 to 17 can be offered participation in a voluntary, yearlong treatment regimen through the county's Juvenile Drug Court program.

It includes weekly drug tests and court appearances with a parent or guardian, random home and school visits from probation officers, individual and family counseling, and required community service.

Success rates hover at less than 50 percent. Of the 84 teenagers who took part from 2002 to 2005, only 33 have graduated.

"It's usually for a teenager who has been in the court system for a while," said Judge Teresa Estrada-Mullaney, who oversees Juvenile Drug Court. "We think by the time we get kids in the program, they want the help."

Administrators say there is a shortage of counseling available. A full-time therapist books weekly sessions with all individuals in the drug court program. An additional full-time therapist, or at least a part-time therapist, is needed to accommodate the participants.

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