A parent walking into a teen’s bedroom to snoop when that teen isn’t home might have this thought go through their head: “What am I doing? I’m totally violating my kid’s privacy. I shouldn’t be in here.”
Jessica Wong, regional business development director for the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, and Cendee Palmer, Hazelden’s outreach manager, said parents have to get over that mindset, and Hazelden, along with a list of partnering organizations, is showing parents and others why.
Wong said the Top Secret Project launched about a year ago; it’s a traveling mock teen bedroom that has about 150 warning signs in it for drug and alcohol use, depression and eating disorders.
The initiative came together as a result of Hazelden joining with the East Central Drug and Violent Offenders Taskforce, the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office, Partners in Prevention, Partnership for Change, the Minnesota Crime Prevention Organization, the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, School District No. 197, MAARCH and the Minnesota County Attorneys Association.
Many of the items used in the Top Secret Project were seized as part of drug busts. Wong also noted there are decoy items — not every item in the room is an indicator of serious issues.
Signs of problems
Wong said identifying when a teen might be abusing substances or having depression issues can be very difficult, given that teenagers can often be “kind of moody and unpredictable in nature.” The Top Secret Project can help pinpoint those signs.
Wong and Palmer said many people who go through the bedroom exhibit notice the major red flags right away, like marijuana pipes, but they are often surprised when they’re told what signs they missed.
“We tell parents that just because they find an apple in their kid’s room that doesn’t mean that something is going on, but if they find an apple that has holes in it with a strange odor and burn marks, maybe they’re using the apple for a bong.”
Wong continued that teens who use or sell drugs often find crafty ways to hide them and their drug paraphernalia. There’s a can of Coke in the bedroom that seems quite unassuming, but it actually has a threaded top on it, and it can be screwed off. Then the soda can becomes a canister to conceal items teens don’t want their parents to see.
Palmer said even something as mundane as a textbook can be used for concealment.
“You wouldn’t think to look inside of a book, but oftentimes teens will cut out pages of a book and hide their drug paraphernalia in there, because you would never think of looking inside of a book,” she said.
Chisago County Sheriff’s Office Investigator Cliff Sheppeck, with the East Central Drug and Violent Offender Task Force, said teens are using the Internet to find creative ways to conceal drugs.
“Don’t take a can of spray deodorant as a can of spray deodorant,” he said. “Check it. It’s constantly changing. If you go anywhere on the Internet you can search ‘concealable containers.’”
Palmer further noted that items in the bedroom like toilet bowl cleaner and mints don’t raise the eyebrows of everybody who goes through the room.
“We may be looking at an eating disorder of some sort,” Palmer said, noting that teens who binge and purge are hyper-vigilant about cleaning up after themselves so they can continue to hide their disorders.
Wong said parents should also know what teens are keeping in their vehicles.
“We had a young man who drove to school one morning and the K-9 unit was there,” she said. “The K-9 unit found a number of items in his car, including bongs and other paraphernalia. There were enough pills for him be charged with felony possession as well as felony intent to distribute.”
Wong said she spoke to the boy’s mother about if she had any idea her son had all those drugs in his car.
“She knew nothing,” she said. “She did go in his room and was looking around. Parents need to interact with and engage with kids in their world. Just standing on the periphery and seeing what they can see from afar is not going to give them the whole picture of what might be going on for someone who is struggling.”
Sheppeck said cars are often used to conceal drugs, and people who use vehicles to hide them don’t always put the drugs in obvious places.
“The task force took 12 pounds (of drugs) off a car — it was in the spare tire,” he said, noting that the people transporting the drugs had actually taken the tire off the rim, placed the drugs inside of it, and then put the tire back on the rim.
County attorney lauds project
Chisago County Attorney Janet Reiter said stories in the news make it evident that communities are not immune to the negative effects of drugs and alcohol.
“The Top Secret Project is an innovative tool to help parents understand what they may be overlooking in their own homes when it comes to risk-taking behaviors of our youth and the pressures to which they may be exposed,” she said. “Young people are bright and innovative and may be fairly skillful at hiding what is going on in their lives. They may have explanations or excuses, but trust your instincts.”
Reiter said if parents don’t want their children to use drugs and alcohol, having strong relationships with them is key.
“When it comes to prevention, there is no substitute for parents being involved in their kids’ lives,” she said. “From early on, parents must establish lines of communication with their kids. It is never too early to start the conversation about the harmful effects of drugs and alcohol. Every day there are teachable moments to bring up the message that you, as a parent, do not approve of drugs or alcohol.”
If you think there is a problem, or suspect your child is experimenting with drugs or alcohol, do not hesitate – get help.
How to talk to teens
Palmer said people who view the Top Secret Project are provided with ideas on how to talk to their teens, if they catch them in possession of drugs or alcohol, or if they notice they’re having problems with depression.
The Hazelden Betty Ford website, www.hazeldenbettyford.org, also has helpful tips on how to interact with teens who may be using drugs or alcohol, under the “addiction” tab.
Wong said after people see the Top Secret Project bedroom and watch a presentation, they’re asked to fill out a survey about the experience.
“One of the questions is ‘What is the biggest thing you’re taking away from seeing this presentation?’” she said. “Overwhelmingly, it’s ‘The safety of our kids trumps their privacy.’ They will quote that directly from what they see on the screen, and that’s a big part of the conversation. We’re all hesitant and reluctant to violate our teens’ privacy in any way, but if it means keeping kids safe and recognizing some of these potential warning signs before they come to a point where they need a resource like Hazelden, then that’s ultimately our goal.”
If anyone is interested in learning more about the Top Secret Project or hosting it in their community, visit http://www.hazeldenbettyford.org/resources-for/top-secret-project or contact Cendee Palmer at 763-331-4473, firstname.lastname@example.org.