TRUCKEE, Calif. — At a youth sports end-of-season party, coaches give out trophies to 8-, 9-, 10-, 11-, 12- and 13-year-olds with one hand, while holding a beer in the other.
That was a scene Truckee Police Chief Adam McGill saw within a few months of moving to town from Modesto, Calif.
And it caught him by surprise.
“I’m not in uniform. I’m there with my kids. I’m just a parent,” he explained to a small crowd at Sierra College last Thursday during a panel discussion on the impact of alcohol and drugs on community youth. “I watched the room, looking for facial expressions of what I thought mine may look like if the mirror was near me — of amazement — and I saw nothing.”
Since, McGill said he’s seen adults publicly drinking alcohol at youth sporting events, the Fourth of July parade and Halloween parade — events attended by children.
“We talk about this being an underage drinking problem,” McGill said. “I agree, but really this is an adult problem. This is a cultural norm.”
According to the Truckee Police Department’s 2013 report, 107 drivers were arrested for drunken driving, 25 percent of all arrests made in Truckee last year.
Further, of the 350 reported traffic collisions in 2013, more than 21 percent involved alcohol. Of that number, 7 percent were directly attributed to an intoxicated driver, who was arrested.
“We’re sort of the last resort (for folks), and we interact with those individuals. Some are at the very front end of their crisis with drugs and alcohol, and some of them have been dealing with it for a number of years,” McGill said.
“But today we’re here to talk about youth,” he said, with a goal of preventing them from ever reaching the point when law enforcement and alcohol and drug abuse counselors need to get involved.
“If we just try to save the people who are drowning, we’re going to be overwhelmed financially, emotionally,” added River Coyote, director of Tahoe Truckee Future Without Drug Dependence. “We’ll never be able to save them all just looking at it from a treatment perspective. ... So we really have to go upstream, and we have to find out what in our community could possibly be causing this.”
‘A FAMILY DISEASE’
Growing up in Incline Village, Christi Goates found herself drowning in that metaphorical river.
“I started drinking at the age of 12, when I was in the sixth-grade.” she said. “... I loved it. I loved it from the moment it touched my lips, and I went to my first rehab center when I was 16 years old.”
It wasn’t until she was 31 that she became sober.
“My life in Incline Village was all about drugs and alcohol,” said Goates, adding that her suppliers included friends’ parents. “I could find it anywhere; I could get it anywhere.”
Today, Goates is a drug and alcohol counselor at Community Recovery Resources in Truckee and Kings Beach. Some of the adolescents she works with smoke marijuana with their parents, she said.
“It isn’t just their problem, it’s a family disease,” Goates said. “If we can get the parents in to talk about that disease ... to talk about maybe their drug addiction, as well, or their use of drugs, I think that’s the first step.”
And it’s not only parents who are enablers, said Corine Harvey, executive director of student services for Tahoe Truckee Unified School District — it’s residents who host parties and purchase alcohol for minors, allowing youth to drink.
“That kind of thing has to stop,” Harvey said. “We, as a community, have to protect all of our kids.”
That even extends to grandparents, said Barbara Perlman-Whyman, an Incline Village resident and psychologist.
“I think when we talk about this problem, it’s pervasive at every level, and how you change culture to be a healthier culture, really requires getting every level involved,” she said.
Peers also play a role in youth use of drugs and alcohol.
According to the 2012 California Healthy Kids Survey, 52 percent of 155 11th-graders who voluntarily responded said they had used alcohol within the last 30 days.
“Once you get to 50 percent, it becomes the norm, and so the kids actually perceive that it’s normal and to not drink is abnormal,” Coyote said. “They think everybody’s doing it.”
But that’s not always case.
“We hear all these horrific statistics, but most of our kids are great,” McGill said. “They are making great decisions. ... We need to recognize those kids who are making great decisions every day.”
For students who reported not drinking alcohol or using drugs in the past 30 days, the No. 1 reason why was not wanting to disappoint or lose their parents’ trust.
It’s those young people who can be part of the solution, Goates said.
“I think the most important thing that we do is to get (those using) in with a different crowd, different friends,” she said. “I find the ones that find different friends have the highest success rate of staying clean and sober.”
There’s also the individual domain, with genetics, mental illness, social rejection, lack of adult supervision and knowledge of negative consequences to drug and alcohol use, among others, serving as risk factors.
“We can’t say our kids don’t know about the risks and effects of alcohol and drugs,” Harvey said. “Wholeheartedly, they do. We can’t say they don’t know how to make good choices. They do.”
Within TTUSD, students are educated from elementary to high school on alcohol and drugs, starting with choice making to the harms of those substances through AlcoholEDU and other programs and events.
Harvey said she doesn’t believe adding another school program, another parent meeting or another thing will solve the problem.
“When somebody tells you if we just do this one thing or just that thing, that we’re going to solve the problem; we’re clearly not going to solve the problem,” she said. “It’s only working as a village, as a community to address these multiple issues are we going to be able to have success.”