Sunday, January 7, 2001
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Posted on: Sunday, January 7, 2001

Wasted teens, wasted future

By Mike Markrich
Kailua-based researcher and writer

It is holiday season at the Olomana School at the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility. There is a special guest and the boys at the table are excited. They are anticipating being fed holiday treats, playing games and being visited by a tourist.

Her name is Mildred, a retired attorney from Brooklyn, New York. She is 72 and white haired. When asked how many grandchildren she has, she says she cannot remember.

The boys, who are between 15 and 16 years old, Japanese, Filipino, Native Hawaiian and hapa-haole don’t care. Some of them don’t even know where Brooklyn is. Among them are drug users, perpetrators of violent crimes and thieves.

Few people from Hawaii come to visit these boys and they are grateful for the punch, the cake, Mildred’s sincere warmth and her willingness to treat them as ordinary people.

One of the boys who sits next to me compares his hand drawn ink tattoos, crosses, knives and awkwardly drawn letters with the boy next to him.

"I want to do drugs," he says staring straight ahead. "That’s why I’m here."

He’s not alone.

Nonchalant neglect

It is estimated by the State of Hawaii Alcohol and Drug Abuse Division that 16 percent of the students in Hawaii’s public and private schools are in need of alcohol and drug abuse treatment.

Less than one third of them receive any help. Not surprisingly the juvenile halls are full, there are many disruptive students in classes and no prospect that circumstances will change any time soon.

Ironically, while the number and diversity of young people impacted by drugs and alcohol has gone up, funding for state programs that could help them has gone down and in some cases been completely eliminated.

At the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility in Kailua, a new five-year-old building built for 30 occupants now has nearly 60. In addition another building on the property is housing 25 people. While children are sleeping on mattresses on the floor and facilities are bursting at the seams, the political mood toward them is one of almost complete indifference.

Incarceration without rehabilitation

No one seems to care that some of these children will spend the rest of lives time in the system, that some girls will have babies at 16, or that few will be rehabilitated after leaving incarceration.

One of the teachers said that after 12 years of hard work at the facility, she is confident of having saved only one child from becoming a repeat offender.

"Its not a priority in the minds of many people," explains a matter-of-fact Dr. Terry Shintani, the director of preventive and integrative medicine at the Waianae Health Clinic.

"There’s no money in it and there no big companies or insurance companies that benefit so nobody is really interested. People think that so long as they or their families are not involved it doesn’t affect them.

"What they don’t seem to realize is that if you get one child who is born with fetal alcohol syndrome or a baby born to a mother who is chemically abused and that person commits x number of crimes you are going to have this person who becomes a social problem for the rest of his or her life.

"And when you start to multiply the number of drug addicted babies that are either going to grow and commit crimes or are going to be on welfare the cost is enormous."

All Hawaii youths vulnerable

The inability of the public education system to deal with the problems that face so many young people has been widely addressed.

What has not is that the problems cross class and social lines. How else can you explain that a recent study of Hawaii high school public school and private school seniors indicates that more than 30 percent of the Caucasian and Native Hawaiian students surveyed indicated that they were in need of alcohol or drug treatment and approximately one in five of the Filipino and American of Japanese ancestry students?

The numbers are staggering. It has been estimated by the state Department of Health that as many as 16,000 children in Hawaii meet the criteria for needing treatment. The health department provides treatment to a mere 1,400 now.

The number of those receiving treatment from funds from private insurers are unknown.

Renee Klingle, a professor of health communications at the University of Hawaii, who administered the survey of 25,000 children in 204 public and 44 private schools said there was a reason why so many children were at risk. Drugs are readily available to them from family, friends and peers within their social networks.

"We ask the kids where do you get your drugs and they say they often get them from family members or friends." Although there is a presupposition that students attending private schools are not as badly affected as those in private schools, the drug epidemic among young people is so widespread that no one is immune.

One University of Hawaii researcher said that the information gleaned from their studies indicates both groups were equally at risk. Private schools did slightly better, with 13 percent indicating need for treatment. Sixteen percent of public school students indicated that they were in need of treatment.

The problem of alcohol drugs and rehabilitation is not a public school problem, but more insidiously, a widespread problem that affects all Hawaii youth.

Legacy of latchkey childhood

There are a number of reasons for the epidemic. Hawaii has a well established drug culture that goes back at least two generations. In Hawaii the selling of drugs for many years has been viewed as a "victimless crime."

The children have few defenses. Because of today’s economy in which both parents work, large numbers of young people grow up as "latchkey children" with the television as babysitter. Lacking close family networks, grandparents, uncles, aunts etc. as role models the children look to TV and music videos for cues on how to behave.

In many cases, TV reinforces the use of drugs and alcohol the children see at home.

Unfortunately, there has been little financing for alternate programs that build self-esteem and help teens interact such as midnight basketball, social centers and structured programs for rehabilitation.

During the last 20 years, efforts at reform have been sporadic. Repeated calls for new drug programs, better facilities for young children and counseling for teen mothers by organizations such as the ACLU have been met by successive state and county administrations with indifference.

In part, this may be because each of Hawaii’s demographic groups responds differently to the drug crisis.

Some of the groups, primarily Hawaiian, Caucasian and Filipino, tend to take a more tolerant view of drug use, often viewing it as a stage through which young people progress.

Other groups, particularly Japanese and Chinese, take a harsher view, threatening members of the families with exclusion if they do drugs.

Societal risk in making

Some parents mistakenly conclude that it is a "public school" problem because they sent their own children to expensive private schools where the penalty for doing drugs or alcohol can be expulsion. No one understood that when funding was cut for children’s programs, the roots of more expensive long term problems were being created.

The risks for society are steadily increasing, from working class Kalihi to upscale Lanikai. The situation on the Neighbor Islands is even worse, with Hawaii, Maui and Kauai counties having a larger proportion of students with substance abuse treatment needs than the City and County of Honolulu.

Elaine Wilson, the head of the State Department of Health Drug and Alcohol Division, said that alcohol use by teenagers often leads to drug use. Hawaii eighth graders drink (on average 20 out of 30 days) at a rate three times the national average and the problem is getting worse.

"What concerns me is that we are getting information that increasing numbers of 4th graders are drinking, Wilson said.

"We used to worry about 15 year olds Now we worry about 11 year olds. The problem is snowballing. Its frightening."

Barbara Fuller is the teacher in charge at Olomana School at the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility. She has taught at the school for twenty years.

"We know today that the need for money to buy drugs is causing crimes. The other big problem is that many of the youth that are in trouble lack the ability to read and write. If they have a problem, it’s not diagnosed and by the time they get into seventh and eighth grades, they seem to fall apart. They drop out of school, become truant and one thing leads to the other."

Focusing on youths

Young people, whether they are in private or public schools, have to be made a state priority.

More money has to be invested into school-based alcohol and drug rehabilitation programs in public as well as private schools.

Money must be invested in structured programs of counseling, prevention of teen pregnancy, new public gyms, parenting classes, remedial reading and special education.

The expertise to do this right is out there. It is not being done. Elected officials in Hawaii have had a free ride on this issue for too long.

They should have it no more.

Civic organizations like Rotary and the Hawaii Civic Clubs that devote much of their time to helping outstanding students need to spend some time helping those at risk. Some of the teenagers, particularly those from Neighbor Islands get no visitors at all.

The cost of drug counseling is $2,000 per student.

I asked Wilson what she thought the costs would be if Hawaii continues along its present path.

Her reply: "What’s the cost of our future?"

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