“It’s like in the movie Traffic — it’s about the family, not just about the girl,” says Susie Spain, certified addiction specialist. “It encapsulates why I do what I do.”
Every Tuesday evening at Santa Monica High School, Spain — founder of the nonprofit Angels At Risk — creates a haven for teens and families coping with substance abuse.
For the past several years Spain’s program, operating under New Visions Foundation, has been dedicated to helping teens at risk for drug and alcohol abuse, and their families, through intervention, prevention and education.
“My passion is driven by my belief that an addiction problem in a child or teenager is a family problem,” Spain says. “If parents are willing to take responsibility and say, ‘I might have helped you get here, maybe I can look at what I’ve done too,’ or at least say ‘I’m going to help you get through this,’ it gives the child a chance to make it.”
Twenty-three years sober, Spain says her mission is based on love and kindness with limits.
“I believe my generation suffered alone,” she says. “We were just shipped away.”
At the bottom of her own journey in addiction, she decided that if she made it through, she’d help other kids and families because it was such a lonely journey.
“When I was growing up, it was about the girl not the family, and it was a relentless struggle,” she says. “If parents could just get involved, it evens out the pressure on the child.”
Statistics indicate that in 2002 more than 1.3 million teens in the U.S. aged 12 to 17 were dependent on or abused an illicit drug, and eight in ten felons sent to prison in California abuse drugs or alcohol.
Spain says this problem is at a crisis level for kids and this kind of crisis requires that the community pull together to help these kids and their families.
Spain’s Angels At Risk support group is open to all teens at risk and their families, and meets at Santa Monica High School each Tuesday at 6 p.m.
Some 20 to 30 “angels” aged 12 to 18 and about 15 to 25 parents come to the group each week.
Most of the kids in attendance have been caught with drugs and/or alcohol in Santa Monica, but they can be from anywhere, from Beverly Hills to Inglewood.
Spain says these kids from different backgrounds find they have “the same set of feelings but a different set of circumstances, and it creates a common bond between the kids.”
Counseling, parenting tips and information on sobriety are a part of the parent/teen support group, which has parents in one room and teens in another.
Spain says it’s comforting for the teens to know someone’s been where they’ve been and they’re more likely to listen to advice from someone who’s been in their situation.
Spain and her facilitators talk with parents about the various issues for a kid at risk and suggest counseling by a trained therapist.
“If you have a family in a room with a third person, a child will feel so much more acknowledged if there’s another person they feel will listen to and understand them,” she says.
Spain also uses a powerful tool called “Love Notes” with the group.
Parents and teens write to each other, telling what went well that week, what went wrong and what needs to be worked on.
“This form of communication opens up a dialogue between parents and kids that’s safe and protected and it’s the beginning of how parents and kids can heal the breakdown of communication between each other,” Spain says.
“Parents who get the opportunity to look at issues with their kids are lucky, and the support group helps the families find solutions together,” she says.
Spain says the warning signs of substance abuse include lack of communication, staying out late, anger and failing grades.
“The minute kids start to split from their parents they look for another place to find a connection,” she says. “They feel alone and drugs and alcohol become their way to connect, but drugs and alcohol aren’t love.”
Spain says juvenile judge Pamela Davis and the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District deserve ongoing praise for their commitment to this program.
Judge Davis spends time talking to families and refers parents and kids to the program.
Spain says that when kids get identified as “at risk,” if the parents don’t blame and shame them, kids have a way of getting back on track.
“If a kid’s constantly the problem and the loser, how can they change? They already feel bad, they’re getting high because they don’t feel good about themselves.”
Spain says that even though confronting substance abuse is all about crisis, there can be relief and definitely more love when families come together to heal these issues.
Information, Susie Spain (310) 471-8969.
Julie Kirst can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org