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Alcohol program reaches out to rural youth

The Alaska Native Justice Center is on a mission to help troubled youth tackle life's problems head-on and envision a better future. But for many of Alaska's young people, it's easier said than done, particularly for underage, out-of-town drinkers who get busted in the big city.

Offenders are often ordered to undergo an evaluation to determine the severity of their drug and alcohol use, and to seek an appropriate level of follow-up education and care. While that sounds like a relatively simple formula, carrying out the court's orders takes time, money and access to qualified care providers.

"If you get shipped way out to tundraville you probably don't have an organization that has certified instructors," said Deborah Wing, director of program operations for ANJC.

The inability to easily remedy run-ins with the law can lead to a host of problems, Wing said. Left unfulfilled, outstanding "minor consuming alcohol" obligations to the court can interfere with the offender's ability to get a driver's license, certain jobs (like forklift operator) and student loans or enlist in military service.

The burden of being out of compliance with the court can also cause internal strife for teenagers and young adults. They may become more withdrawn and allow problems with substance abuse to get worse -- and fearful of having their names come up in data systems flagged as delinquent defendants, they often keep a low profile, failing to reach for life's opportunities.

To help, the ANJC now has traveling education teams that meet the state's court-ordered requirements for alcohol awareness classes. Certified teachers within the center's Rural Juvenile Safety Action Program typically hold weeklong classes in select Bush communities on a monthly basis. They go when there are enough students who need the class, and only if the community invites ANJC to offer the course.

ANJC instructors for the federally-recognized Prime for Life program say cultural adaptations specifically incorporated into the classes for Alaska Native youth are already making an impact. The course utilizes talking circles to discuss choices and experiences in life, and offers a graduation ceremony to promote a sense of a rite of passage -- something that other, more straightforward curriculum delivery lacks.

"I think the cultural component helps people feel free to talk to me, include sexual abuse. They come back and they bring friends," said Rene Rouzan, one of the program's certified instructors.

Yet offering the mandatory alcohol classes in rural communities, where there would otherwise be no option for compliance, repairs only one of the broken links in the judicial net when it comes to underage alcohol use.

According to Wing, young people caught in the system often have more complex problems. They may have no money, no transportation, no home, no high school diploma. Helping young people tackle these kinds of day-to-day living obstacles, in addition to pursuing longer term goals, is another of ANJC's goals. In Anchorage, the center is able to extend these additional services to the youth it serves, but can't offer the same "wrap-around" care statewide.

Because many 14-to-21-year-olds come from families unable to afford the Prime for Life program, ANJC offers its classes for free to eligible participants, based on income. Economics is a barrier for participants regardless of where they live, Wing said, noting that in Anchorage classes fill quickly with Alaska Native students as well as those from a wide variety of other ethnic backgrounds.

"Families can barely live paycheck to paycheck, if they have a paycheck," Wing said. "If you have a choice between buying groceries for the table and $160 for a class for the youth, you're going to buy the groceries and say ‘You're in trouble, too bad.' And so we try to eliminate that barrier."

ANJC also pays for bus passes to ensure students who need the class can get to it. If -- and only if -- a student completely botches the course work and fails repeatedly will the center impose a $50 fee.

Anecdotally the program appears to be a success, Rouzan and Wing said, a benchmark they measure by the fact that they aren't seeing return students coming back through the program. The ones that do come back do so willingly and are generally looking for guidance as they pursue new life goals like graduating from high school or finding a job.

According to Wing, the program is getting favorable nods at the state and federal level, and is under review as a blueprint for similar programs elsewhere.

Wing attributes the success to the ethic that drives ANJC's mission.

"We take the premise that our youth can succeed," she said.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com.