There's no quick fix to reducing the alarming number of children turning to alcohol and drugs for solace, say those running a residential rehab facility for kids in the Waikato.
"It's going to take a whole community approach," Rongo Atea manager Shell Brown said.
The Waikato Times reported last month that hundreds of young children were arriving at Waikato hospitals after having abused substances, with some as young as 12 being treated for full-blown addictions.
In the past 18 months, 72 children with full-blown addictions have been treated by the Waikato District Health Board's child and adolescent addictions services – the youngest aged 12.
But Ms Brown said those numbers didn't come close to showing how big the issue really was, with many children being treated at community facilities such as Rongo Atea.
"I would have expected more, actually," she said.
Rongo Atea, run by Te Runanga O Kirikiriroa, is a residential treatment facility for teens aged 13 to 17 who have problems with alcohol and substance abuse. Most of the teens come from the greater Waikato or Bay of Plenty and there had been a "run of 14-year-olds" lately.
So far this year they've had 20 young people through the facility – but only six have graduated so far.
Ms Brown said parents were at the "end of their tether" by the time their children were admitted.
Programme co-ordinator Iharaera Henare said he hadn't noticed a great change in the types of addiction treated over the four years he'd worked at Ronga Atea – but almost all had issues with both alcohol and drugs.
"Their addictions usually depend on their environment and what's readily accessible. If their parents are drinkers, then they usually will be too. So, absolutely, environment has an impact."
They dealt with the top 10 per cent of kids abusing substances – meaning the addiction was having a major impact on their lives.
They had either dropped out of school, were constantly truant or had started committing crime to fund their habit.
Mr Henare said Rongo Atea wasn't the rehab most of the kids had pictured it would be.
"We burst the stigma right down."
Each of their several whares has four bedrooms and a living room area for the teens to socialise in. For many, it was the first time they'd had their own room.
The main gate was also left unlocked – but if they left, they wouldn't graduate.
Mr Henare said the first two weeks were the hardest and most important for the teens as they learned to open up and talk about the issues that drove them to substance abuse.
Ms Brown said it was a "real joy" to see the kids clean.
"They start to play and just be teenagers again.
"I think it's really difficult to be a young person these days. Life is just so much busier so those watchful eyes just aren't there."
PATH TO COURT-ORDERED REHAB HAZY FOR ALCOHOLIC TEEN
Hamilton is full of teenagers who spend their days drunk or drugged, says a alcoholic teen who just got out of rehab.
For nine months Nikita Wiari, 17, would wake up and have a drink – or a joint.
If she didn't have any booze at home, she'd hit the streets to "hustle" to get money or find someone to get alcohol for her.
"I wouldn't like prostitute myself, but we'd get people to buy us alcohol and go back to their place and take off – or wait till they were asleep and then take what we could.
"There were days when I'd hustle a lot."
Nikita had been a casual, weekend drinker since the age of 15 – but when she left school and started a computer course in the CBD last year her drinking started getting out of control.
She met up with a group of her "alcoholic friends" in town and went down hill from there.
"I was drinking every day – whatever I could get hold of. I skipped class and didn't go home for weeks.
"My dad kept saying to me 'You are going to die by the time you're 20 if you keep drinking the way you do'.
"Mum knew how bad I was and used to try and keep me home, but I'd still sneak out. I didn't like being told what to do.
"I used to get stoned every day as well – but alcohol was my thing."
At the time she didn't think she had a problem.
But when she found herself hauled before the Youth Court on five charges, including intent to kill and assault with a weapon, the enormity of her addiction started to sink in.
"I can remember bits, but I couldn't say I wasn't not guilty because I couldn't remember."
She was ordered to attended the Rongo Atea youth residential treatment service, or risk going to jail.
The day she arrived she was stoned. The first two weeks of the 10-week programme were the hardest.
"But my dad said 'If you can get through the first two weeks you'll make it'. He was the only one that knew I could do it – everyone else thought I wouldn't stick it out."
She watched as several others on the programme took off or were sent "back to juvie" for misbehaving. In the end she was one of only four to graduate.
"The hardest part was realising that I did have an alcohol problem."
But she's not ashamed of having been to rehab and wants other kids to know it's a real option.
It's been three weeks since she left Rongo Atea and "I feel good now – way healthier".
"It felt good knowing that I could do something for my own health. I want people to know that there is this place and it's got people that will help you – even though they don't even know you. You can do it and come out clean."
She also had a message to parents.
"There are s... loads of young people that drink every day. My advice to parents would be to just stay with them and help them through it."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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