Regional youth center flourishing

Several unidentified kids sit in front of a computer at the Western Nevada Regional Youth Center. The center helps treat youths with drug and alcohol related problems, including computer training. Photo by Brian Corley

Several unidentified kids sit in front of a computer at the Western Nevada Regional Youth Center. The center helps treat youths with drug and alcohol related problems, including computer training. Photo by Brian Corley

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SILVER SPRINGS -- He looked like any other teenager working in a class group. Marker in hand, he took one half of a dry-erase board to write "Time Management" in big, script-like letters. On the other side, he posed a question: What is time management?

But he wasn't just any other teen.

Like all the other boys, he was wearing standard-issue blue pants, blue shirt. He and his small group are about half of the roughly 20 youths being treated at the Western Nevada Regional Youth Center for drug and alcohol addictions.

Friday was his day to teach the rest of his group -- the half not in another room attending school -- time management skills.

These mostly Caucasian, normal looking kids aren't in the center because they are "just sassing their parents," Center Director Lon Cook said.

Before these youth were sent to the Silver Springs facility, they were on the verge of commitment to a state youth facility.

They are kids with severe alcohol and drug dependency issues, kids who committed crimes and dealt drugs, kids suffering from everything from depression to pre-emergent schizophrenia. The 1-1/2- year-old regional youth center was perhaps "the last hurrah for them," said De Vere Karlson, Churchill County chief juvenile probation officer.

Since it opened in August 2000, more than 100 Western Nevada children ages 12 to 18 have gone through the center, the state's first eight-jurisdictional treatment center serving five counties and three judicial districts.

By all accounts, the center has been vastly successful.

"It's our center," Karslon said.

Before construction of the treatment center, juvenile probation staff from Carson City and Churchill, Douglas, Lyon and Storey counties had little choice but to send troubled youth with serious alcohol and drug dependency problems to state detention facilities at China Spring, Caliente or Elko. Keeping a child in detention locally wasn't much more than "child sitting to protect them or the community," said Chuck Steele, Lyon County chief juvenile probation officer.

His commitment rates are down 27 percent. Of his 36 admissions, five have been committed to state facilities.

Of the 73 Carson City and Storey County youth admitted to the facility, 56 successfully completed the program while 12 failed. Seven of those teens were sent to a state facility, said Sheila Banister, Carson chief juvenile probation officer.

Without the center, a "good percentage" of the 73 would have spent time in long-term detention rather than in a program that attempts to help fix their problems.

The numbers are similar for the smaller counties. Douglas County numbers weren't available, but of the 22 Churchill County admissions, six have relapsed and three have been sent to state facilities, Karlson said.

"Of those 22, all were headed to commitment," she said.

The regional youth center offers the five counties not only an alternative to simply locking kids up, it also is an opportunity to give kids who've failed nearly every other treatment program a real shot at rehabilitation.

"This is a 30- to 40-year investment in a child," Steele said.

If the teens act like angels when they start at the center, they're shown the door. They're warned of this in the three-hour orientation to the facility. Cook meets with the teen, their probation officer and family in a confessional session where he warns them to be truthful and to be ready to work.

The center's treatment model isn't based on kids learning a rule and coasting through staff-led therapy sessions, Cook said.

"They're here to work," Cook said. That means "leadership, participation, taking risks, getting involved."

A child who blames others for his or her problems will wind up teaching peers why blaming others is an erroneous way of thinking. It forces the youth to take responsibility for their problems.

"We tell kids, 'There are lots of reasons for why you're doing the things you're doing. There are lots of reasons for you to have a behavioral problem, a drug or alcohol problem,'" Cook said. "'However, no matter who you blame for your problems, you can only blame yourself if you stay that way in your life.'"

Cook said when many people think of sending a child to a treatment center, in their minds they see locked doors, bars, angry, combative children -- not average-looking teens in a building with no locked doors, computers and book shelves filled with materials. Kids at the silver Springs facility could leave any time if they really wanted to. If they choose that route -- and only two have -- they can't return.

The center has room for 28 youth in the treatment program and also has five detention beds, which are temporary spaces used by all five counties. It costs just under $100 -- $99.67, to be exact -- a day for a child in the center. Detention alone costs around $100 a day and doesn't include treatment for the teens, Banister said.

Before the advent of the regional center, children in the detention center, if not committed to the state, were sent to area treatment centers where local agencies had to deal with insurance issues. Most treatment was covered for 28 days and children without insurance couldn't be treated.

Cook said the typical teen in the center is failing on probation and has multiple chemical dependencies. It's not unusual for a child to gross between $20,000 and $60,000 yearly between supporting their drug habit and supplying drugs to others. The effects of their criminal behavior are felt by their communities.

The typical kid is likely drinking alcohol two to five times a week to the point of intoxication and likely mixes frequent use of drugs from marijuana to methamphetamine and cocaine with experimental drugs like LSD or mushrooms. Some also come with addictions to over-the-counter medication like cough syrup.

About 80 percent of the kids come from families with parents "who are actively abusing drugs and alcohol or have a history of substance abuse," Cook said, and some teens report their path to addiction started at age 8.

Layer on this mix the fact that most of these teens suffer from some form of mental illness --either exacerbated or induced by drug use.

One of the benefits of having a regional center is the ability to have families participate in therapy. Every Tuesday and Thursday, the center is crammed with families of current and past residents and their families, going through the center's after-care program, which includes up to a year of weekly visits to the center.

There are, of course, families that don't come, but those who do almost always end up working on their own problems as well as their child's, Cook said.

Leaving the program doesn't mean the teens won't use again. Many will.

"When you look at substance abuse, that's part of the disease," Banister said. "We expect the kids to use. That's a lifetime problem that 60 to 70 days in a program isn't gong to fix."

However, Cook noted most are heading toward sobriety. Also, if they slip, teens can return to the center for what Steele calls "a tune-up." Some call Cook or his staff members for support when they're tempted to relapse.

"We've had kids ask to come back in here," Steele said. "The kids in the community would suffer a major loss if we lost this program."


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