Finding Best Teen Drug-Treatment Programs

When Marty Kehn found out his teenage son was on drugs, it was as though a stranger had moved into their suburban home, and he wasn't sure how to help.

"Life with Spencer while he was using was life without the Spencer I know and love," the father said. "Instead of family weekends, dinners and water skiing, there were calls from police, searching his room for clues to what was going on, only to find things that were stolen … another morning in court."

Spencer Kehn, now 16, tried out a series of drug-treatment programs before meeting success, and has now been drug-free for one year. But finding a program that worked entailed a lot of trial and error.

"The first program was unsuited for Spencer because it did not involve his family," said Barbara Kehn, Spencer's mother. "We then got him into a residential program which had after-care. So he has continued to learn and he's gotten a network of non-using friends."

More than 1 million American teenagers need treatment for substance abuse, but only one in 10 is actually undergoing treatment, according to the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse. Parents who do seek treatment are often faced with an assortment of programs and need to know which work best. Today, a nonprofit group called Drug Strategies is releasing a first-ever comprehensive guide to teen drug treatments.

Getting Into a Teen’s World

Mathea Falco, the president of Drug Strategies, said parents who want help for their teens should look for some very specific things.

"A good program should use a nationally recognized assessment interview to determine a teen's drug use, their psychiatric history, their family and school situation," Falco told ABCNEWS' Good Morning America. "More than half the teens in drug-treatment programs have psychiatric problems that also need to be addressed. And these should be found in a screening."

The programs with the best track records should also use a comprehensive treatment approach, meaning they address factors other than drug use.

"Effective programs address the full reality of the teen's world, from school to family to peer pressure to juvenile court, where many teens are referred to treatment," Falco said. "It can't just look at curtailing substance abuse."

In addition, family members should be involved in the treatment process, in areas such as counseling, group meetings and drug education.

"Some programs even have caseworkers who come to your home," Falco said.

Avoiding Relapse

Parents should also ask programs what their retention rate is, since three out of four teens in drug treatment drop out of their programs before finishing. Most teens fail to finish a 90-day program, Falco said.

Finally, a good treatment program has continuing care that stretches on, even after the teen has bidden the program itself goodbye. Three in four teens relapse in the first three months after treatment programs.

"Successful programs link teens to community services that can help them, things like 12-step programs, psychiatric services, remedial education," Falco said.

Residential facilities that are live-in and have around the clock supervision can cost around $15,000 a month. Most outpatient programs, which provide treatment one to three times a week, cost about $800 a month. In some cases, treatment is covered by insurance.

The Turning Point for Spencer

Spencer Kehn said that he started using marijuana and alcohol when he was 13 and tried other drugs as well. At first, his parents thought that he was turning around on his own, but then he would get into more trouble at school, or with the police.

Spencer ran away from his first treatment program, which didn't involve the family at all, and his parents then sent him to a lockdown-type facility. When he was ready to leave that program — which was not successful — he called his parents and got a surprise.

"They told me they didn't want me at home," Spencer said. "That made me realize the effect I was having on everyone, it wasn't just about me. So I thought I would at least give treatment a shot."

Next he tried an outpatient program, but was disorderly and got kicked out. He then attended a residential program that offered follow-up treatment, and has been drug-free for a year.

Marty Kehn said that struggling with Spencer's addiction was tough, but ultimately brought the family closer.

"Trust your instincts, even if it goes against what you want to believe about your child," he said. "We have learned so much about ourselves and human behavior. We have also become much closer as a family."