Youth substance abuse is opportunity to raise accountable kids | Island Forum

By Cindy Goodwin

By Cindy Goodwin

Mercer Island Youth and Family Services

While the Mercer Island Reporter opinion piece dated March 10 titled, “If your child is charged with a crime; Why you should know good criminal defense attorneys,” highlights some important legal considerations for Island parents responding to their child’s law-breaking behavior, keep in mind that youth substance abuse on the Island is not the norm. Such a situation should first and foremost be approached as an opportunity for parents to help their child navigate a difficult moment in life.

A child’s involvement with the law is often more complicated than something to be written-off as a “stupid mistake” or simply the result of drugs and alcohol alone. It is important to understand the context in which youth grow up on Mercer Island.

Mercer Island has many benefits: strong schools, extracurricular options and family-focused and safe neighborhoods. But Island youth also grow up in a culture of affluence that brings with it a unique set of challenges and risks.

Affluent kids, for example, tend more often to use substances to relieve stress, face more pressure to achieve, are over-scheduled and tend to define success more externally (possession, college ranking) rather than internally (adherence to values, altruism).

It is also important for parents to understand just how much alcohol and drugs do, or don’t, to contribute to law-breaking behaviors among minors. The two are related, but the reputation for Island youth to use double that of youth from “more moderate financial backgrounds” as stated in the March 10 article, overstates and simplifies the relationship.

For example, the state Healthy Youth Survey finds that Island sixth, eighth and 10th graders consistently use less drugs and alcohol than their peers statewide.

While Mercer Island 12th graders used alcohol 13 percent points more than typical Washington teens in 2014 — their use is far from double. Yes, substance use, particularly binge drinking, remains a concern, but there is more to a youth’s decision to break the law.

True, helping ensure our children’s rights are upheld in the legal system is an important constitutional right and especially important with higher level personal and property crimes and felonies.

However, Dr. Suniya Luthar, an expert in affluent youth who studied Mercer Island, and who was cited in the original article, finds specifically that affluent youth more often tend to commit low level crimes and ethical violations such as random acts of delinquency and academic cheating.

So, when a child is arrested for these type of crimes, or cited for academic cheating, Mercer Island Youth and Family Services suggests parents consider how to create a learning opportunity for their kids to address the natural ethical, moral and financial consequences of their behavior.

To assist families with this learning process, MIYFS offers the Diversion and Early Intervention program. This program holds youth accountable for their actions through community service while providing counseling, education and/or alcohol/drug intervention to help them get back on track.

Arrested youth meet with a diversion counselor to establish an individualized diversion agreement assigning certain responsibilities to the youth, including counseling or drug/alcohol treatment where appropriate.

Without going to court, the youth’s case is “diverted” into a program that helps them both learn from, and be accountable for, their mistakes.

Diversion does not result in a criminal charge or conviction for the youth, and it does not show up on public criminal records. It has an excellent track record of preventing future law-breaking behavior.

Concerned parents are walked through the process and supported to engage with their child as they learn natural consequences and the concept of restorative justice — key developmental ingredients for raising ethical, accountable and successful adults.

For more information on the Mercer Island Youth and Family Services Diversion Program, contact Karlene Johnson at 206-275-7611 or

Cindy Goodwin is the director of Mercer Island Youth and Family Services.