Police are seeing more young people with drug problems, but there are not enough programs to treat their addictions
Oct. 30, 2006. 05:53 AM
Sam looks like any other university student strolling along Queen St. Her eyes are bright. She smiles a lot, especially when she talks about how much she likes studying theatre. "I love it! It's fun and crazy and creative."It's taken a long time for Sam to get to this place, where her smiles are genuine and her eyes are clear. At 22 years old, Sam knows what it's like to be reborn. She was in her last year of high school when she first tried cocaine. It was at a friend's place. From that moment, she was hooked. "It was like the elixir of life." She wanted to be high every minute of every day. In school, she was always the one everyone else picked on. "It numbed that pain." Within four months, she dropped out of school and was stripping to pay for drugs. Soon she was living on her dealer's couch. She pushed away friends and her family. She lost 40 pounds in two months. Soon she was so doped up she couldn't strip. She'd pass out high. "The first thing I'd do when I woke up, before my feet even hit the floor, would be finish up the lines that were on the table." Her 57-year-old dealer pressured her to trade sexual favours for drugs. "I remember lying there with my legs clenched and my eyes shut and just fighting back tears ..." The stories of young drug users like Sam, whose name has been changed for this story, are horrific, but all too common and a continuing uphill battle for police and others mandated to curb the trend.A Toronto Star analysis of crime data shows a growing number of teens in the Greater Toronto Area — most profoundly in the 905 — are coming into contact with police because of drugs. Still, there is a shortage of services to help them break free from these addictions.In 1991, youth were charged or received warnings in 3.7 per cent of all drug incidents for a total of 453 incidents, including possession and trafficking. By 2005, it was 21.5 per cent or 2,618 incidents. In the surrounding regions outside Toronto, the climb has been dramatic, even accounting for the 32 per cent rise in the teen population. In 1991, suburban youth were involved in 6.6 per cent of drug cases. By last year, it was 29 per cent — and the number of youth involved skyrocketed from 163 to 2,132. Meanwhile, the number of youth involved in drug incidents in Toronto in 2005 was 481, representing about 10 per cent of all drug incidents."I'm 41 and I know when I was in high school, it seemed as though drug use was kind of a weekend-type thing — you know where you go to a party and someone has a joint," says Const. Dave Hookway, a high school liaison officer with Durham Region police."Now what I see, the ones that are using drugs are using them on a daily basis. "A lot of these kids are ending up having to go to rehab. It's not just marijuana use. It's cocaine use."Drugs can also lead to other types of crime. In 2005, Durham youth were involved in 5.4 per cent of residential break-and-enters in the region. "I think a lot of them end up being drug-related," Hookway says. "The majority of them occur during the day and the kid or the group is either skipping school or it's lunchtime."We've had cases where they come back to school and they're caught in the bathroom divvying up the property."Teens found with drugs are often referred by police or youth counsellors to addiction assessment and referral programs, which can be found across the province.But outpatient programs have limitations."They can come to us for individual counselling, but that's for an hour a week. That's not going to take them out of the situation," says Victoria Peace, manager of youth outreach and intervention for the YMCA of Greater Toronto, which runs the Peel Youth Substance Abuse Program. "There are very limited resources for youth who are using drugs and who may want to get out of the situation that they're in," Peace says. Referral programs in the GTA may want to send teens to in-patient residential treatment centres. But publicly funded centres are in short supply — especially in the GTA — and private programs can cost tens of thousands of dollars. In fact, there are only two provincially funded mainstream residential programs for teens in the province — one near Ottawa and the other in Thunder Bay — and both have long waiting lists for their total of 24 beds. According to the Ministry of Health, there are four other residential teen facilities, but they are aimed at specific groups, including francophone males, aboriginals and young women.One of the newest facilities for teens with addiction issues is Pine River Institute, a private, not-for-profit boarding school. It's located 100 kilometres northwest of Toronto and opened this past summer.For the first six to eight weeks of treatment, teens camp out in the wilderness. They regain their strength by canoeing, portaging and eating healthy meals. Then the teens move into the 36-bed residence where they receive intensive counselling and can enrol in high school courses. The turnaround is remarkable, says chief executive officer Karen Minden. "We had one student who came in from having just been in hospital emergency with an overdose and a week later she was portaging a canoe and several weeks after that she was enrolled in Ontario secondary school courses to make up some of the credits she lost over the last few years." The program charges $400 a day per student. With the average stay expected to be about nine months, the bill can top $100,000.There are some bursaries available and the board is fundraising aggressively, Minden says. "Our goal is that we will not have to turn away any child because of financial need."The program was started without government funding, but Minden says the board is open to receiving cash from the province as long as independence is maintained. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care said it would consider subsidizing teens on a case-by-case basis if Pine River applied for funding. "We're losing some wonderful young people and their families go down with them," says Minden. "Some of these kids are the best and the brightest and they just run into trouble in adolescence and we need to be doing everything we can to help them get back on track."Experts view addiction centres as tools to prevent additional costs in the future — costs to the legal system, health care system and social services. "If you're mired in addiction issues ... it's hard to move forward with your education and with a vocation," says Gloria Chaim, deputy clinical director of the child, youth and family program at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Sam started drinking heavily when she was 16. "At parties, I was the drunk girl who'd be making out with absolutely everybody."When I'd be at a party I wouldn't feel confident unless I was absolutely hammered. Once I was absolutely hammered alcohol gave me that feeling of self worth and then I'd feel comfortable chatting, but unless I was emotionally numb I was overwhelmed with fear and pain," she says.She had just turned 18 when she started using cocaine. "A low point for me was when I took all the presents my parents and my brother had gotten me for Christmas and my dealer and I went to the mall and I returned them all to get cash to give to him to get more drugs. I hate myself for doing that."For more than a year, the addiction clouded Sam's life."I find with everybody who's an addict, they had some sort of childhood trauma," she says, "and that emotional pain carries through and stays with you until you learn how to heal." The province's two mainstream addiction facilities for youth are both plagued with long waiting lists.Alwood Treatment Centre is a half hour drive from Ottawa. Recovering addicts ages 16 to 22 stay here for four months, during which they receive counselling, anger management, relapse prevention, do exercises that promote self esteem, and learn independent living skills.There are 14 beds — eight for males, six for females. "There is always a waiting list," executive director Pauline Sawyer says. For women, it's two to three months; for men, three to four. "Sometimes the clients themselves call. Sometimes they're in tears or almost in tears and ... you can't respond in as timely a way as you would like to," Sawyer says.Family members who call Alwood are equally frustrated. "When they finally get their child motivated to go to treatment — and that can take a while — and they find out there is a long waiting list, it's disheartening because they can't pick up on their child's motivation right away," says Sawyer."They're scared that something is going to happen to their child while they're waiting because their children are often involved in a lot of high-risk behaviours."The Thunder Bay facility run by St. Joseph's Care Group has just 10 beds. Two are reserved for locals.About 80 per cent of referrals to the five-week program come from outside the north region, says Nancy Black, St. Joseph's manager of addiction services.It's the only place in the province for youth under 16, but, like Alwood, there is often a waiting list. "It can be anywhere from a month to three months," Black says. On the flip side, some private centres have beds, but not the funds to fill them. Portage Ontario runs a residential treatment centre in Elora, 100 kilometres west of Toronto, for teens ages 14 to 19. The agency only receives government funding for youth from the criminal justice system or children's aid. Regular teens with addiction issues aren't covered, even though the centre may have room for them. "One of the things we find kind of sad is on any given day we could handle another one or two youth at the facilities ... but at times we have to turn away clients because there is no funding to take them," says Jennifer Blunt, Portage Ontario's director of development. It irks Blunt that some of the 52 beds go empty. "Really no bed should be available. There should be a constant flow of youth into the program because there is so much demand."Portage plans to apply to the Ministry of Health so that regular teens with addiction issues can fill the empty beds. Until government funding comes through, the agency will try to pay for some teens on its own. A recent fundraiser raised $15,000, about 10 per cent of what Portage needs to accept 15 more teens. The cost per teen is $160 a day and the average stay is four to six months. A five-month stay would cost about $23,000. The Ministry of Health allocates about $114 million to substance abuse treatment programs across the province. Money is divided between 150 agencies, 47 of which provide youth-specific services. Ministry spokesperson John Letherby says there are no plans to open a residential program for teens in the GTA. Sending GTA teens to far-away centres has its disadvantages, says Chaim of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health."Sometimes they come back to their environment and nothing has changed in their environment and they're back to where they started," says Chaim. "If you have access to treatment closer to your home, it's easier to work with the families. It's easier to look at what else is happening in their home environment." As for Sam, the road to recovery has been marked by both successes and failures."I honestly thought I'd be a stripper doing coke for the rest of my life," she says. "I had no reality." She eventually moved out of her dealer's apartment and back in with her parents. Then back to her dealer's. She'd be clean for five days. High on the sixth. "He'd leave piles of coke on the computer desk," she says. "He knew the second I did it, I'd be his again." Her self-esteem was battered. "I hated myself," she says. "I couldn't look in the mirror."Finally, someone she knew introduced her to Narcotics Anonymous. "I went every day, sometimes twice a day. ...It's given me my life back. It's given me a life because I didn't have a life before."Early in 2003, she moved out of her dealer's place for good. She stayed clean for five months. By that time she was 19 — just old enough to qualify for an adult residential treatment program. She was the youngest one there. "It was 24 days of concentrating on me, on my pain and just healing and learning the tools we need in life." She switched to a different high school. This time she graduated. "It was the proudest day of my life."Now she's living on her own and studying at a Toronto university. She says she would probably be in jail if she hadn't moved away from her dealer. "I got out of that circle," she says. "Everyone who was in it got arrested. I'm very lucky I got out."