Getting Help: When Parents Suspect Drug Abuse

By Kim Duffy
Do you get the law involved? Straight, hard facts from a community cop.

Addiction turns parenting upside down. Normally, the last thing a parent would think of doing is report their child to the police. Yet sometimes parents resort to this when they’ve played their last card and the child is still out of control. Most parents will say they called the police to save their child’s life, and sometimes it works. Other parents have called because their child was stealing from them.

For any parent, it is a decision fraught with doubt. From the receiving end, punishment metered out by the criminal justice legal system can appear about as unpredictable as a game of rock/paper/scissors. If the police do respond, will they frighten their child or haul them off? Will the parents end up incurring legal bills along with their healthcare and rehab bills? Where and when will this end?

Before forging ahead with actions that might have lifelong consequences, it is probably advisable to seek legal advice, keeping in mind that some addicts’ lives aren’t going to be very long if they can’t wrest themselves from their drugs. Ideally, one would be able to balance legal advice with that of an addiction counselor.

Lieutenant Lenny Bruno has spent many years working in community policing and in high schools. The following is an interview with Lt. Bruno answering an important question for parents of addicted children: When do you call the police?

Do you get parents calling you because they want you to frighten their child?

Yes. But I firmly believe if you’re dealing with a child who is using drugs, to have me come in and scare them isn’t going to work. If you’ve got substance abuse, you need the counselors, the doctors, the people who know how to deal with that stuff.  Parents can’t deal with it alone.

When is it appropriate to call police -when you find a bag of pot?

You find a bag of pot and call the police-your child is going to be arrested.

Really.  On what charge?

Class B misdemeanor.

For one joint, or an ounce of pot, would you get the police involved?

I would. Get the courts involved and get the kid into some help.

When does a misdemeanor charge become a felony?

Marijuana up to about a pound is misdemeanor. Over that, it moves up. If you’re within 1,000 feet of a church, school or a park, there’s an “enhancement,” and in the state of Utah it’s pretty hard not to be within 1,000 feet of a church. All high school arrests get enhanced, so instead of a simple marijuana possession being a class B misdemeanor, it becomes a class A. It’s also enhanceable if they’ve been caught before.

What about harder drugs?

Any amounts of cocaine, meth or heroin are 3rd degree felonies. Then, if it’s enhanceable, it’s bumped up to a 2nd degree felony. Even prescriptions like OxyContin. Possess those when they’re not yours, it’s a 3rd degree felony. And if we can prove there is intent to distribute, it jumps up.

When does it become a first degree felony?

If you have the packaging material, and it’s all broken up, and you have enough that we can show you’re selling it, and it’s enhanceable, it’s 1st degree.

How do parents react when you charge their kids?

Some are thankful. Some are embarrassed, and they lash out at us. Instead of looking at their child and saying, “You screwed up. Now, we’re going to go through this together, and I’ll be there with you the entire way,” they just get a good attorney, find a loophole, and beat the charge. I hate to say this, but the more money the parent has, the more they want this fought right from the beginning. And what are they teaching the kid?

When do parents get the police involved if their child is stealing?

If you suspect they’re stealing for drug use, get the police involved.

Are police going to have the time for some teenage drug addict? Don’t policemen sometimes destroy evidence and let the kid go, saying they want to give them another chance?

There you’re dealing with different personalities and work ethics, just like you do in any business. Me personally, no. When you get the police involved, you also get the courts involved. And the courts have the power to mandate that the user attend rehabilitation or drug education, depending upon how serious it is. Working in a high school like I have for several years, anytime we try to keep it out of the court’s hands, it’s gotten worse. So many parents turn a blind eye. With my children, if I suspected anything, I’d go toss their room.

What if  it is an adult child?

If they’re living under my roof, their expectation of privacy should be minimal, because I could be in jeopardy too.

If a parent is ignorant of their child’s stash, can they be in jeopardy?

If the child is an adult, and if it’s for personal use, it isn’t so bad. But for a minor – as a parent, you’re responsible for them until they’re 18.

So the parents could be in hot water?

Yes, for not observing their children enough to see their child is out of it, and they’re not seeking help. It can even go in as child abuse.

Yes, but you know how clever addicts are at hiding their drugs.

An example of where a parent would be in jeopardy is if their child were growing marijuana with a grow globe in their room. Parents should realize through their power bill how much electricity is being used. But when the investigation is completed, if there’s any bit of knowledge that their child is a user and is growing pot in the house, yes, the house and property can be confiscated. It can get really nasty. Same with a meth lab.

Could a meth lab operate in a household without parents’ knowledge?

Believe it or not-that’s how out of touch some parents get with their children. You don’t have to be your child’s best friend. You need to be your child’s parent.

What if the parent has no evidence but feels the child is in trouble?

I send parents who are worried about their kids but don’t have any hard evidence to prove that they’re taking drugs to Project Reality. It’s $15 for a seven-panel test. I give parents the phone number (364-8080) and tell them to get on top of it.

Are there any other such programs you recommend?

We use the court system. Courts aren’t as harsh as everybody thinks. Drug court has really helped a lot of people. But if you screw up at drug court, you get to go away.

What if a minor says they’ll run away or go live with a friend if you drug test them?

A minor can’t go live with a friend without the parent’s permission. If the parent calls the police and makes a missing person report on the child, and if the police go there and find that friends are secreting their kid, they’re charged with custodial interference.

What if the kid just disappears?

We put out a missing person report, and when we find the kid we let the courts deal with it.

What do you tell parents who have an adult child living with them who is abusing drugs or alcohol-do you advise them to kick them out of the house?

That depends on the situation. Give them three chances, and if they don’t accept your help then you’ve got to move on. It’s hard because they are your flesh and blood. But what is it doing to the rest of the family?

What if a child comes home apparently high?

A parent can call the police. We can do field sobriety tests. I do them on the kids at school. I can tell if they’ve been using marijuana or alcohol by what their eyes do. I check their tongues, I check their pulse.

Better to have the police do it because they know what they’re looking for?

Not every officer has this knowledge. Parents think they are responsible for diagnosing the problem when really they could use professional help. Take your kids to the doctor. Take them to Project Reality.

Are school counselors trained for this?

No. The teachers and counselors at school aren’t specifically trained to look for this stuff, but if they notice anything out of the ordinary, they are required to report it to the administration, and they get us involved.

Out of the ordinary, like how?

If they’re goofy, out of it, sleeping and can’t wake up, stumbling around, smelling of alcohol, smelling of dope or cigarettes.

You’re pretty black or white about this. Every officer is not.

Look at the big picture: Is it the school’s problem or the family’s problem? The school has standards, and you have to meet them to stay there. Schools need to get a lot stricter because the types of drugs out there now are a lot more dangerous. I try to start these students off in the right direction, but I’m not in control of what happens after that. I’ve gone toe-to-toe with parents who didn’t want me to give their kids a ticket, and I pull them aside and tell them they’re not doing them any favors. They think I’m a hard ass, but I’ve had some of them come back and thank me for doing what I did. If I had turned a blind eye, I might be the one to find them overdosed. I don’t want to live with that.

Kim Hancey Duffy is a freelance writer in Salt Lake City, and is also a member of the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Coalition on Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs:

This article was originally published on August 31, 2007.