Ubiñas: Parents of an addicted son share their story

The Peters, Nancy and Kevin, knew their then-15-year-old son had been using and dealing marijuana and other drugs for about a year. They got him into a counseling program, set ground rules. ( DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer )

NO PARENT ever dreams their kid will become an addict. If that weren't obvious enough, it lay bare in the despair and desperation on the faces of many of the parents who attended a recent forum about young people struggling with substance abuse.

Nancy and Kevin Peter, of West Mount Airy, were panelists at the Horsham Township Community Center forum last week.

When it was their turn to speak, Nancy began with an admission that moved other parents to nod in agreement. When the Peters envisioned their only son's life, addiction wasn't part of it.

"I suspect it's what happens when a child is suddenly hurt in an accident, or is stricken with a disease . . . parents have to 'recalibrate' the future they envisioned for their son or daughter," she later said. "And then, of course, there is the added guilt, shame, blame, anger. I knew that [my son's] addictions were not his fault and not my fault . . . but knowing is not always feeling."

The Peters knew their then-15-year-old son had been using and dealing marijuana and other drugs for about a year. They got him into a counseling program, set ground rules.

Then in late 2013 they got a call: He'd been arrested at Central High School with about $140 worth of marijuana and about $200 in cash.

Understandably, the Peters were freaked out. They received some information from the school and district about what came next, including a flier with parental rights, but they found it lacking. They went into parental preparation mode.

"I can tell you that nobody did us any favors, nobody bent any rules, but people walked us through what was going to happen," said Nancy Peter, founder and director of the Out-of-School Time Resource Center at the University of Pennsylvania. "I have close colleagues in Family Court and the school district because of the work that I do and they got back to me that weekend and said this is what's going to happen. They walked us through everything. By Monday, we were ridiculously versed in all of this."

They know not everyone is so lucky, which is why they're choosing to tell a story others would probably keep to themselves.

In Family Court, their son was charged with possession and given four months of probation. His charges would be expunged if he followed the rules and stayed out of trouble.

But there was still the matter of where he'd go to school. The Peters quickly realized their options added up to no option at all, they said. The neighborhood school he could have attended wasn't the right environment for him. None of the multiple public or private schools he applied to accepted him, except for the Bridge Way School, a small recovery school in Manayunk, where the Peters say their son, now 17, is doing well.

A happy ending for the family. But not the end for a family who saw firsthand how challenging the school and court system was to navigate, and now want to help others through it.

"We are not implying our son got a bad deal," said Kevin Peter, who's a fundraiser for a nonprofit. "He got what he deserved. Our concern is that many kids and families in Philly public schools do not have the information or guidance they need to get the best possible outcomes for their children in this situation."

Rachel Holzman, the district's deputy chief of student rights and responsibilities, said there's always room for improvement, but parents are given adequate information, including a referral to the School Discipline Advocacy Service, a coalition of law students who advocate on behalf of students and parents at school disciplinary hearings. In its first year, 2010, they handled about 10 cases. Last school year they provided advocacy at 35 hearings. This school year, they've already provided assistance at more than 20.

But quoting from a list of the parental rights, Kevin Peter wondered: "Does everyone know what 'bring a representative' means? Do people who aren't fluent in English understand that? Young mothers who didn't graduate high school? Elderly guardians? Do parents/guardians who feel disenfranchised believe their witnesses will be heard or given the same level of credibility as the district witnesses?"

All fair points, although I wonder if any amount of information or preparation would feel like enough for parents in crisis.

"I really applaud what the Peters are doing," said Kim Rubenstein, the founder of Be a Part of the Conversation, a drug- and alcohol-awareness group that organized the forum the couple participated in. "So often the fear of being judged leads to silence and isolation."

For the Peters, worse than being judged is feeling alone on a path no parent ever envisions for their child.



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