In 2011, five young people died of heroin overdoses in the Santa Clarita Valley, according to stats from the SCV Sheriff’s Station. But heroin isn’t the community’s only challenge when it comes to illegal or illicit drugs. KHTS News reporter Stephen K. Peeples is on special assignment, going behind the scenes, talking to SCV kids, parents and the front-line professionals, to investigate what’s really going on, why it’s happening, and what we as a community are doing about it. This is the fifth and final story in the series. Click here for HometownStation.com’s “It Takes a Village” portal page and links to all the previous stories.
As community leaders told us in Part 1 of “It Takes a Village,” heroin isn’t the only thing killing young people in the Santa Clarita Valley. They cited an explosion of prescription drug abuse as the fastest-growing and most widespread problem our village faces right now. In January alone, three people died from suspected pill overdoses, according to Bob Wachsmuth of the SCV Sheriff’s Station’s Juvenile Intervention Team.
In Part 2, subtitled “Why Do Kids Turn to Drugs?,” we heard from experts who work with young people about the reasons they see why kids get into drugs, ranging from peer pressure to bad family environment to experimentation, and the role played by self-esteem, or lack of it.
In Part 3, “The Kids Aren’t All Right…But They’re Working on It,” we heard from three recovering hard-drug addicts ranging in age from 17 to 27 who recounted their harrowing experiences and perspectives as users and abusers, and now as abstainers.
In Part 4, “Every Mother’s Nightmare,” we heard from two local mothers whose children are at various points on the road to recovery from addiction, and are paying an extremely high price, emotionally and financially.
Now, in Part 5, “Villagers Unite Against Youth Drug Abuse in the SCV,” we take a look at how our community is addressing drug abuse among young people in the Santa Clarita Valley.
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As everyone from the cops to the kids has told us: There is no single solution. What’s needed, what has the greatest potential to actually have a positive effect, they say, is a concerted effort on the part of everyone who lives, works, learns and plays in our village.
That effort should begin at home with parents, and includes local law enforcement, educators, family counselors, health care providers (physical and mental), government, business, the faith-based community and anyone else with a stake in the health and safety of kids in our community.
If all these forces are working independently, or not at all, or at cross-purposes, the efforts will have limited positive impact.
That’s what was happening in the Santa Clarita Valley until a couple of years ago, when heroin overdoses and public outcry finally shocked our village out of denial.
In recent months, with increased awareness and support from the community, those forces have been finding ways to work together, and smarter. Is this comprehensive approach in place yet? Is it starting to make a difference? Depends on who you ask.
Law Enforcement: Education Over Incarceration
Responding to the demands to “do something” was among the first things on the agenda for Capt. Paul Becker in March 2010, when he was named chief of the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station, which polices L.A. County territory in the Santa Clarita Valley, and, by contract, the city of Santa Clarita.
Becker initiated a study of drug use and abuse by local young people, and reported his findings to the City Council on May 25 that year, just a month after local mother Krissy McAfee had addressed the City Council about the death of her son by heroin overdose.
“Once we did our study almost two years ago, (when) we really started looking at this issue, we understood we had to (take) a three-pronged approach,” Becker said. “We had to look at enforcement, intervention and we’ve got to be involved in education. If we don’t incorporate all three of those components, we won’t be successful.”
Becker also sent a couple of station narcotics detectives along with a task force, which also included Ingrid Hardy from the city of Santa Clarita and Kathy Hunter from the Wm. S. Hart Union High School District, to Dade County, Florida — the greater Miami area. Their mission: to observe that village’s relatively successful model for dealing with its youth drug problem, a program dubbed “Drug-Free Youth in Town.”
“I wanted them to all look at this program from their perspectives,” he said.
Simply put, the task force’s take-away from that trip was that education over incarceration seems to work there, and might work here.
On the enforcement side, Becker said his deputies can kick doors down and make drug busts all day long. “But it’s just not going to solve the problem on its own. Years and years ago, we thought enforcement was the only way to solve this issue. I think everyone understands — certainly, I understand, now — that (enforcement is) only a fraction of this game. We have to look at the intervention side to deal with those individuals who are addicted, and get them the help they need so they not only fix themselves and fix their families, but they don’t victimize other residents in the valley.”
Juvenile Intervention Team
That was the thought behind the Juvenile Intervention Team, which Becker established at the SCV Sheriff’s Station in July 2010. The “J-Team” as it’s nicknamed is part of the local Headquarters Narcotics Team, which is made up of detectives Becker selected in conjunction with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department’s county-wide Narcotics Bureau.
“The Juvenile Intervention Team is a team built within that team, but their mission is different,” Becker said. “(JIT’s) mission is to sever narcotics before they get to school-age kids. That’s their target. So, when we’re starting to work something, if it looks like it’s getting to school-age kids, the J-Team takes that investigation and runs with it, versus the headquarters’ narcotics team.”
The J-Team has been tracking the recent explosion of prescription drug abuse among teens and young adults, and, at Becker’s direction, begun to take a more proactive approach to drug overdose cases.
“An ER doc at the (August 30, 2011) Heroin Symposium (in Santa Clarita) said they deal with several hundred ODs a year, including alcohol and prescription drugs,” said J-Team investigator Bob Wachsmuth. “But we don’t know about all of them,” he added, because when a citizen calls 911 regarding a possible overdose, paramedics respond and take the person to the hospital. It’s considered a medical emergency.
Now, at Becker’s direction, Wachsmuth said, J-Team detectives are trying to follow up with recovering overdose patients at the hospital to see if they need or want help, and offer referrals to whatever resources for treatment are available. But deputies must also avoid violating any medical patient privacy or doctor-patient confidentiality laws in the process.
Education = Prevention
After enforcement and intervention is the third component, education, which breeds prevention, theoretically.
“On the education side, we’ve got to step back into sixth, seventh and eighth grades and get to these kids at 12 and 13, when a lot of the activity begins, and change their minds about sobriety and living a sober life,” Becker said.
The dialog should continue “at least through high school, 18-19 years old, so the brains have time to develop and they can make logical decisions at that time (about) how they’re going to run their lives,” he said. “So regardless of what comes up in the future, the decision’s already been made that they’re going to lead a sober lifestyle, rather than continually chasing the newest fad and the newest designer drug. We have been doing that for decades. That’s why we’re now so heavily into the education component, and we’ve been working on that very hard this year.”
With more than 60 schools and a student body population nearing 50,000 in the Santa Clarita Valley, almost half of them junior high school and high-school age, reaching those teens before they’re exposed to or get into alcohol and drugs is a challenge the community must win.
“One of the things that we realized, on the law enforcement side, was the old days of a deputy sheriff in uniform coming into school and saying, ‘Don’t do drugs, it’s bad for you,’ right?” Becker said. “I mean, ‘OK, Dad. Thanks.’ Right? (laughs) I just don’t think that’s where we need to go today.
“We need to develop this from a peer-group perspective, to have groups that are together within the schools — that’s what (Dade County’s) program does — and do things that are fun, sober and everything else,” he said. “And bring into those groups (the idea that they) will never do narcotics. What we’re really looking for is those kids who could be swayed, but now they’re with a peer group and (saying), ‘I like this group. I belong to it, it’s a good group, they do good things. I gotta be sober to be part of this group, and it’s OK. I think I’m staying here.'”
This is the positive side of peer pressure: kids looking out for other kids. At the age when many young people don’t want to listen to anything their parents say, they will listen to their peers, and older kids they look up to.
“The seventh- and eighth-graders, who in most schools will create those clubs, will reach down to the fifth- and sixth-graders,” Becker said. “What’s important about that is when the fifth- and sixth-graders are ready to come into that junior high school, they have already committed to a club. They walk right into a club, the peer pressure issue drops, they’re more at ease, they’re accepted, and they move along.”
The same dynamic can work a few years later as a teen is about to enter high school, as kids in the eighth grade connect with current ninth-graders. “The pressure going into high school is now lowered…when they come in, they’ve got friends already and it takes away a lot of those walls,” Becker said.
“And then it’s structured, it’s got all kinds of stuff that they do. That is the mind-changer. That’s where we need to be, because we’ll always have the bath salts, the (OxyContins) — we’ll always have that stuff. We just have to change (minds) so it doesn’t matter what’s out there. This is the way we’re going.”
Schools: Education Over Expulsion
“I think our Sheriff’s Department has been extremely effective — it’s the first time ever that I’m aware of, anyway, that there’s been a true partnership between the city, the Sheriff’s Department and the school district,” said Kathy Hunter, student services coordinator for the Wm. S. Hart Union High School District, and point person for most things related to student and campus safety, including intervention for alcohol or drug abuse. “So, we all constantly meet, collaborate, share information.”
The Hart district’s “Zero Tolerance” policy of mandatory suspensions or expulsions of students for drug-related offenses, established in 1993, came under fire in spring 2010 after Krissy McAfee, Councilman Frank Ferry and others called the policy ineffective and in need of re-evaluation. The district is now taking a more positive approach designed to help students if at all possible, rather than just punish.
“We do a great deal of working with the city, the Sheriff’s Department and with all of the different community resources we have to help provide intervention services,” Hunter said.
“We keep an up-to-date list of everything that’s available, anywhere in our valley — contact information, what type of insurance is accepted, what type of fees are charged if any,” she said. “We work directly with those organizations all the time so that they stay up on what our needs in the community are, as well. And we also try to do a lot of education. We do webinars so parents can (stay up to date) with what’s out there right now.”
Hunter said the district is working on funding of a new program. “It’s really (focused) on substance abuse, training and knowledge, but also on developing leadership skills and making kids see that they can do something.” She added that the proposed program would also tie in with local businesses.
How else can teachers better equip their students to stay drug-free? Hunter had a few ideas.
“Teachers need to be teachers and not everybody’s buddy or friend,” she said. “Teachers should also have high expectations of their students. And regardless of how large our campuses get, (teachers should) continue to look out and see that we are providing opportunities for every single child on that campus to find a place, to find something that they can excel at, enjoy, to have a group of friends.
“A lot of the kids that you lose (are the ones) that maybe tried out for the volleyball team and didn’t make it,” Hunter said. “Then they tried out for a play and didn’t make it. There’s so much competition. If (a child gets to) where there’s nothing extra they can do that makes them feel special, we start to lose them. And so, I think (teachers should be) just constantly reaching out to all of the students, having our counselors meet with every single kid on their caseload, to check in with them so that child has a face with a name, and knows there’s somebody they can talk to.”
As educators, Hunter said, “We’re all role models, all the time, not even just for our own children, but for other people’s children are around us, or just when we’re out in the community in general.”
The City: Local Government, Businesses Get Involved
“We’ve all been doing our part individually, but it hasn’t always been connected and coordinated,” said Ingrid Hardy, the city of Santa Clarita’s community services superintendent. “With (Capt. Becker) bringing together the city, the Sheriff’s Department, and the school district, I believe we’re going to have greater coordination.
Hardy also saw Dade County’s “Drug-Free Youth in Town” program first-hand. She agrees with Becker and Hunter that a concerted effort is the best hope in reducing drug abuse and overdoses among youth in our village.
“By having that coordination and communication between each of us, we are all able to structure our programs and services in a way that targets the concerns we have in the community,” Hardy said.
For its part, the city launched an ongoing “Heroin Kills: The High is a Lie” public information outreach campaign with the aforementioned Heroin Symposium late last August, designed to increase community awareness and provide information and resources for people who need help. The mayor’s Blue Ribbon Task Force is also focusing on the drug problem in the city.
“While (heroin) certainly isn’t the only drug in Santa Clarita, that campaign started people talking in the community,” Hardy said. “We thought it was very important to get conversation going and to be more (aware) of the challenges we’re facing.”
The city, Sheriff’s Station and Hart district have also developed a Family Education Program, Hardy said. “That’s different classes and workshops, mostly for parents. We work with Deputy Vellick on his drug presentation for parents. We have classes that help parents work with their kids on anger management, low self-esteem, and all sorts of topics that address the risk factors that will increase a child’s likelihood to experiment with drugs.”
Hardy cited the city’s Youth Employment Program for at-risk young people, “where they can get some job training and skills and be placed in a job temporarily. Those are after-school programs at the Santa Clarita Community Center” in the spring and winter, she said.
Hardy added that the city is developing a partnership with local businesses through the program. “There are several that employ teens during the summer. And (through our) spring and winter (Youth Employment) programs, (employers) see the benefit in providing young people with job skills and employment training. In some cases, the teens have actually been hired onto regular positions with companies.”
Between the city, schools, the SCV Sheriff’s Station, nonprofit agencies and other service providers, there’s now a wealth of resources available to the local public, Hardy said, but she’d like to see more.
“Where I think we have room for improvement is by growing the number of agencies and organizations, businesses, state-based community members and other folks to address this from a community approach,” she said, citing the mayor’s Blue Ribbon Task Force. “We certainly have some players in place, but I would like to bring more people to the table.”
Nonprofits Work with Kids, Schools and Cops
Among the most active nonprofit groups working with Santa Clarita Valley young people who have alcohol and drug problems are ACTION Family Counseling, the Child & Family Center, the SCV Youth Project, A Light of Hope, and local chapters of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. They offer a wide range of programs and support services, from information, advice and referrals to in-patient detox and out-patient rehabilitation.
Cary Quashen, who heads ACTION, applauds local schools and law enforcement for meeting the drug-problem head-on as they work together, and with community-based organizations such as his.
“The (Hart) district is out of denial, and they’ve made policy changes that allow them to make recommendations and referrals to treatment centers versus throwing kids out of school,” he said. “I think that’s really going to make a big difference.”
Quashen thinks the local Sheriff’s Department “is on fire. They’re really making a difference here in Santa Clarita, under Capt. Becker and the J-Team. I know for sure the dealers are starting to panic. They’re going after the dealers, making many arrests, getting drugs off our streets. And they’re also intervening when it comes to the addict. If you’re trying to bust the dealer and get the addict treatment, it’s pretty great stuff. We are very lucky for what they’re doing right now.”
The Village Starts at Home
“It absolutely takes a village to raise families today. It starts at home, though,” Quashen said.
He and all the other community leaders and experts we spoke with for this series agreed emphatically: Educating one’s kids about alcohol and drug abuse also begins at home, and can’t start early enough.
“We need to talk to our kids when they’re young, whenever it’s an educational moment,” Quashen said. “If we’re watching TV and there’s a scene about alcohol or drugs, use it as a time to talk to your kids. When is it too young to talk to your kids? Some people say, ‘Oh, wait till they’re teenagers.’ I think that’s crazy. Talk to your kids as soon as they can understand what you’re saying.
“They’re going to hear about drugs from the media. If you watch the news, you can’t get away from it,” he said. “They need to learn about this from us. I sure would hate for my kids to learn about substance abuse from someone else besides me.”
See links to all previous stories on the “It Takes a Village” portal page.