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For parents of addicted teens, treatment is expensive, daunting, hard to find

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Parents are encouraged to call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s national helpline for substance abuse treatment: 1-800-662-HELP.

Learning that their child is struggling with a substance-use disorder is any parent’s nightmare. But, especially if the child is still a minor, that realization is often coupled with another overwhelming question: Where can you turn for help?

It’s a question without an easy answer. In Pennsylvania, for instance, there are only eight treatment facilities that accept adolescents, said Jennifer Smith, secretary of the state Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs. Seven are residential programs. One takes only boys referred through the juvenile justice system.

Early intervention

In a state where 5,456 people died of a drug overdose last year, parents and advocates alike say there’s a dearth of options for parents trying to help children through addiction, a relapsing disease where early intervention is key.

Though the state can help some parents with costs, parents said navigating the treatment system with a minor child is daunting and often prohibitively expensive. They spoke of spending tens of thousands of dollars to send teenagers to long-term rehab programs, of having to pull children from programs where they seemed to be thriving after their insurance ran out, or of praying that teens in juvenile court cases would be sent to treatment instead of detention.

“A lot of attention is going to the 22- to 38-year-olds, but for the most part, they did not pick up as adults,” said Rebecca Bonner, the head of Bridge Way School, the state’s only high school for teenagers in recovery. “This is the piece we’re missing in our state, and the resources and services for adolescents are virtually nonexistent.”

Since Bridge Way opened in 2011, Bonner said, five residential treatment facilities for adolescents around the state have closed, and even intensive outpatient programs that admit teenagers are hard to come by.

Treatment as punishment

For parents who don’t have private health insurance and ready access to cash, the options are even slimmer. Lisa Geist, who grew up in Kensington but moved to Pottsville to raise her family, first noticed last summer that her daughter Brieze McCabe, then 16, was evasive, withdrawn, even staying out of the house for days at a time. Then she found heroin baggies in her daughter’s purse.

Geist had already helped an older daughter with opioid addiction, and knew that private schools and high-end residential treatment programs were out of the question for people of limited means. Officials at the local Children and Youth Services agency, she said, didn’t seem to take Brieze’s case seriously until she was arrested on drug possession charges.

“It took her getting criminal charges for anyone to even step in,” Geist said. “Treatment had to be a punishment.”

A judge in Juvenile Court allowed Brieze to attend a treatment facility outside of Pittsburgh that accepted Medicaid. She turned 17 there and seemed to be doing better, Geist said. Her bubbly attitude was back. She was excited to hit her 90th day of sobriety. She told Geist on the phone that she was homesick.

Geist and Brieze’s father, Corey McCabe, said they would have wanted their daughter to attend school at a place like Bridge Way, where tuition is covered by grants from the state, after her treatment. But it’s a day school in Philadelphia, 2½ hours from home. There was no way to get her there.

In Pottsville, the juvenile justice system offered little support, Geist said. Brieze’s juvenile court date — when Geist hoped a judge would sentence her daughter to house arrest or more treatment — kept getting pushed back. Brieze started leaving the house for days at a time again.

The day before she was finally due to appear in court, she fatally overdosed. Toxicology reports showed the drug she overdosed on was fentanyl, the deadly synthetic opioid behind most of the overdose deaths in Pennsylvania.

“She wanted to do right,” Geist said. “But she got out of treatment, and there was no supervision, no one to answer to, just me calling Children and Youth, calling juvenile probation, and asking them to put her in another treatment center or something.”

Smith said it’s crucial that support for addicted teenagers doesn’t end with a residential treatment placement.

“There are so many support services that really have to be initiated for an adolescent,” she said. “That has to involve plans for completion of their education — something around what the school district is doing, as well as their involvement in the community.”

Parents who are struggling to find treatment options should contact their local single-county authority, the agencies that handle drug and alcohol treatment programs around the state, Smith said. They can also help parents without insurance or with high deductibles fund treatment for their children. “There’s not any way to navigate the system on your own,” she said. “Even if you have great insurance, and millions of dollars to pay the bills, strictly from a case-management perspective, aside from just getting the adolescent into treatment, there’s so much more that goes into ensuring their continued engagement in recovery.”

Aubrey Whelan is writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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