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Juvenile Court Journal: State law is helping families struggling with teen addiction

One In An Occasional Series

Sunday, March 24, 2002

By Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

As the sickness subsided, 17-year-old Wayne Carelli noticed scars on his legs where he'd scratched himself raw and black blotches at his ankles. He hoped the discoloration was dirt. He tried scrubbing it off in the shower. But the stains from heroin use don't wash away that easily.

Four years ago, Wayne Carelli, 17, began abusing heroin. Now he's in treatment and staying at the O.U.R. House in East Liberty, where his mother, Marilyn, and other family members attend regular therapy sessions. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)


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Teens often left behind

The drug also tarnished Wayne in ways he can't see. Now he's the youth whom frightened parents warn their teen-agers to avoid. His own mother and father don't trust him and sleep with the cash and keys in their pajamas.

What is most disquieting about Wayne is that he's not alone. Just about the time he started shooting heroin into his ankle a year ago, the number of adolescent smack addicts turning up in juvenile court and drug treatment programs across Western Pennsylvania began soaring.

Wayne is now in a treatment facility in East Liberty called O.U.R. House, where half the residents are white suburban heroin addicts just like him.

On just two recent days in Allegheny County juvenile court, four adolescent heroin users stood before judges. They included two 14-year-old girls from Mt. Lebanon and a 14-year-old boy from McCandless.

The girls confessed to possession of heroin and agreed to enter treatment. The boy, caught with two dozen stamp bags of heroin and hundreds of dollars, admitted to selling the drug and was sentenced to serve a year at a program that tries to break such teens of that lucrative habit.

The other heroin user, a 16-year-old from Plum, got to court a different way. His parents used an innovative state law, called Act 53, that gives guardians an opportunity to force balking teen-age drug users into treatment.

Allegheny is one of a tiny number of counties in the state that have agressively aided parents in using Act 53. In June 1999, the county Department of Human Services hired Lynn Redick, an adolescent drug case manager with a dozen years' experience, to help frightened parents get their drug-abusing children evaluated and before a judge. Fifteen of the 37 cases she has now are teens who were addicted to opiates, such as heroin and OxyContin.

Wayne's parents, Marilyn and Larry Carelli, went to Redick for help two years ago. They've gone to court with Redick nearly every 45 days since for required Act 53 case reviews. They're weary from that, from the worry and from the need to continue caring, all the while, for their son's twin and his younger, autistic brother.

Although Wayne's drug use escalated during the past two years of continuous treatment, Redick said the Carellis were right to seek help when they first discovered Wayne was smoking marijuana at age 13.

Little help from their friends

Larry Carelli was working on the roof of their house in Carnegie when he saw a half-smoked marijuana cigarette on the windowsill outside his son's bedroom.

Wayne, then an eighth-grader at Chartiers Valley Middle School, owned up to it. And, at first, he cooperated with treatment.

He went to outpatient sessions at Gateway Rehabilitation Center and stopped smoking. But when he was 15, he started again. And in the spring of 2000, he overdosed on a combination of prescription depression medication and amphetamines.

Over the next two months, he spent 45 days in hospitals getting treatment for depression and drug use. Then, he refused to cooperate with outpatient drug treatment. So Gateway suggested the Carellis seek help from Redick.

With forms and advice from Redick, the Carellis petitioned Common Pleas Judge Cheryl Allen who ordered an evaluation of Wayne, appointed a lawyer for him and set a hearing date.

Wayne's evaluation recommended another residential treatment, and Allen sent him to O.U.R. House for 90 days. When he got out in August 2000 at the age of 16, he seemed to be in better shape. His mother said he appeared more positive and more willing to stay sober.

He returned to school that fall and went to outpatient sessions at St. Francis Center for Addiction Services three times a week. But by Thanksgiving, the Carellis discovered he was smoking dope again. And he just wouldn't stop.

When his case came up for a routine 45-day court review in April of 2001, Allen sent him to a residential treatment program in Erie called Luteran Center. There, during a visit one Saturday, Wayne told his mother he had begun shooting heroin in the months before he was committed. He was 16.

At first, he didn't even know what the powder was. "My friend told me it was a powerful drug. At the time, I was using coke. And I would do anything for a high." He mixed the coke and heroin powders and snorted his first speedball. He passed out. His friends left him there for 45 minutes while they got more coke to revive him with.

Snorting made his legs itch and his nose red. So he started shooting the heroin, which he found he liked by itself, without the coke. He knew about getting hepatitis C and HIV from dirty needles. But, he says it didn't scare him.

Wayne Carelli: "I have to stay clean to stay. I feel I can." Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

"I didn't pay attention. I thought, 'Oh well, it ain't going to happen to me.'" He knew the drug could kill, but, he says, "I did not fret about it. I thought I could probably die. But there is another chance I won't." So he took the risk. He liked getting high.

Don't blame parents

The director of the O.U.R. House treatment program, Christine Zak, knows the assumption is that teens take drugs because they have bad parents -- mothers and fathers who were inconsistent or weak or just not there for the children.

But she has found that's not true. She meets with all of the parents of the teens in her program once a month. The day after one of those sessions, she said: "Last night, you would have met responsible, well-educated, very nice and sincere and kind adults who live within the norms of society and who follow the rules and pay their taxes and are trying to do the best they can. They thought they raised their children well, gave them a good foundation. They are grappling with why."

One reason is that it's cheap and easy to get. The 14-year-old from McCandless who pleaded guilty to peddling heroin was buying stamp bags for $10 and selling for $15. And the concentration is very high. Instead of the 15 percent pure stuff packaged in balloons 10 years ago, the powder available now is as pure as 90 percent.

Teens usually start by snorting heroin or smoking it with marijuana. Then some, strung-out like Wayne was, reach the point where they're willing to jab needles into their bodies to get a better high.

Because of the progression from one drug to the next, Zak says it is essential for parents not to tacitly sanction use of either alcohol or marijuana.

It is not the marijuana high itself that leads to heroin or amphetamines or ecstasy. It's the associations. Youngsters who smoke dope learn how to buy and use an illegal drug. They enter a criminal world and become comfortable negotiating their way there. Like Wayne, they smoke with friends who have tried other drugs and offer to share. They can end up taking drugs they once feared.

Wayne says that when he was smoking marijuana, he never thought he would use heroin or coke. A year after that, he says, "Someone said, a friend said, try it. I was like, all right, whatever. I liked it. It was nice."

Wayne's parents began routinely searching his backpack and room for drugs, a practice Zak and Redick advocate. There is no privacy when youths' lives are in danger. Search, they say, under carpets, in socks and underwear, jacket pockets, diaries, tree houses and backyard hang-outs.

That is how the mother of the 14-year-old McCandless drug peddler caught him. She found the packets of heroin, three in a shoe, 21 in a coat, and a list of names and payment figures. She called the police.

She and the mother of the 16-year-old heroin addict from Plum who was sent to Luteran Center on an Act 53 order tried to warn the parents of their sons' friends. But both gave it up when it became clear they were offering information the parents could not believe. It was simply not credible that teens in Plum or North Allegheny high schools were using heroin.

That is how Torry Beuke felt as she jogged through a Mt. Lebanon park one warm December morning last year and saw two 14-year-old girls sitting at a picnic table in a pavilion, one with her sleeve rolled up and a needle in her arm. These were clearly young teens, the age of one of Beuke's own daughters. One was blond with a peaches-and-cream complexion. Maybe, Beuke thought, she was a diabetic. It couldn't be heroin. Then, as she ran past, within feet of the girls, she saw track marks.

She went to the recreation center and called the police. The two Mt. Lebanon High School freshmen were charged with possession.

Staying clean

Wayne relapsed last fall and is back in O.U.R. House.

He says he was just snorting heroin this time, not injecting. He says he went back to it because he missed it. "I wanted another taste of it. I just loved it again." And it was so easy to get. "Everywhere I went I could buy dope. I knew people who could get it real quick."

Now, clean, he is feeling some of heroin's downsides. He recalls the sickness he'd get every time the drug would wear off. He'd have to use two bags just to make the heroin-flu aches subside, then another bag to get a little high.

In addition to the scars on his legs, his memory is shot. "I can't function," he says, "I used to be good at math, figuring problems in my head. Now I have to take paper and pencil for an easy problem. It's scary."

He says last fall, when his father would warn him, he refused to listen, but now there's a peace between them.

"Sometimes, I had to go to work right after school, and my dad would just wait there, and he would say, 'If you keep doing those drugs you are going to be a junkie living under a bridge.' I didn't really care what he said. I didn't feel like hearing him. I thought, 'I will do what I want. If you don't like it, oh, well.'

"At that time, I didn't think he cared at all. But since I've been in here, he has really been showing that he wants me on the right path."

When he gets out, he knows his parents won't let him stay at home after he turns 18 in August if he's using. "I have to stay clean to stay," he said, "I feel I can."

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