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PHOENIX ACADEMY IS RISING TEENS GET FRESH START AT FACILITY.

Byline: Kerry Cavanaugh Staff Writer

LAKE VIEW TERRACE - Drug-addicted at 14, Wendy bounced from juvenile hall to youth probation camps to outpatient programs but never kicked her habit until a judge sent her to the Phoenix Academy, a residential drug-treatment facility in Lake View Terrace.

Now 17, Wendy is drug-free and she's checked her attitude at the door. She speaks frankly about addiction and the no-nonsense counseling and schooling program that saved her life.

``Here we have a lot more adolescents and people encouraging us to live a clean life,'' Wendy said. ``I've experienced so much here.''

For a decade, the Phoenix Academy has kept a low profile, graduating hundreds of clean-and-sober teens back into the community with the simple idea of combining education and therapy under the same roof - and treating drug abuse as the symptom of a deeper psychological problem rather than the problem itself.

It's a proven successful model and one the Phoenix House of California hopes to expand in the coming years, said Winifred Wechsler, a former Walt Disney Co. executive who earlier this month was named executive director of Phoenix House California.

The Lake View Terrace facility is the largest of the nonprofit organization's three youth programs and five rehab programs.

``You're going to see us put the face on treatment,'' Wechsler said. That face is necessary because there have been few successful efforts to increase treatment for adolescents, despite California voters' approval of Proposition 36 that sends adult drug offenders to be treated instead of jailed.

Phoenix House would like to see state leaders embrace long-term treatment as an alternative to juvenile hall, and they're winning some support.

The Little Hoover Commission, charged with investigating efficiency and economy in California government, issued a report in March saying there are too few drug treatment programs available to teens, who pose a long-term drain on public coffers if their addiction is not addressed.

California has always had very little funding for adolescent treatment, said Elizabeth Stanley-Salazar, the public policy director for Phoenix House of California.

``We know treatment works,'' she said, ``we only need the financial resources to expand.''

Los Angeles County has a total of $9.1 million for outpatient and residential programs for teens, including $4.7 million to fund spots at six adolescent residential treatment facilities.

That money goes fast, especially when care at Phoenix House can cost $2,600 to nearly $4,000 per month, depending on the mental health needs of the teen.

Any residential treatment program is hard to establish because of neighborhood concerns. Youth programs are especially hard because there are stricter legal requirements for working with children.

In Lake View Terrace, neighbors were vehemently opposed when the Phoenix Academy was proposed in 1988, and there were a few problems in the beginning, said Phyllis Hines with the Lake View Terrace Improvement Association.

``They say 'drug rehabilitation' and you think of bad characters,'' Hines said recently. ``We fought strongly and put up a good battle but I'm glad we lost. They are really good neighbors.''

Inside Phoenix Academy, a former hospital, the cold institutional walls are covered in top-notch artwork produced by the teens. Live music rumbles from a classroom while other students sit at computers or listen to English lectures.

The bedrooms, however, demonstrate the regimented environment to which these young addicts must conform. Beds are made with regulation 45-degree corners. In the closet, pants hang on one side, shirts on the other.

``Everything around here is very structured because as addicts we wanted everything right there, right now, instead of waiting,'' Wendy said as she led a tour of the academy.

Teens start in orientation, a period when they are stripped of jewelry, hair gel, makeup, brand-name clothing, even their familiar towels and bed clothes.

From there, they climb back up the ladder, gaining privileges and adornments as they stick to house rules, complete the chores, attend school six hours a day and, most important, confront their issues.

In the last phase of the program, the teens move back in with their parents or guardians. They still come back to Phoenix House at least once a month for counseling and drug testing.

``We're sending them to school, working with their families and trying to give them some work and life skills. It's self-motivation that will sustain them when they leave,'' Wechsler said.

Kerry Cavanaugh, (818) 713-3746

kerry.cavanaugh(at)dailynews.com

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Students' art adorns Winifred Wechsler's office. The ex-Disney executive was recently named executive director of Phoenix House California, a residential drug-treatment facility.

Joe Binoya/Special to the Daily News
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Aug 10, 2003
Words:767
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