McAlister’s North Rural Teen Recovery Center in Ramona offers free initial drug testing and help for teenagers using controlled substances. From left, psychologist Amanda Cohen, program manager Alex Serna, and treatment counselor Heather Dixon stand in a room where small groups of teens meet in the outpatient program. Sentinel photo/Karen Brainard

As law enforcement battles drug use and trafficking in the community, a nonprofit in Ramona is doing what it can do to combat teen substance abuse and is offering free initial drug testing for 12- to 17-year-olds.

McAlister Institute’s North Rural Teen Recovery Center at 323 Hunter St. has a 10-panel drug  test that will screen for such substances as cocaine, methadone, methamphetamine, THC (found in marijuana) and opiates, which include heroin.

Parents can walk in with their child or make an appointment, as the test is performed at the center and monitored by staff. It gives an instant positive or negative reading and can be sent to a lab for details, such as the levels of drugs found in the teen’s system.

“The lab is so accurate,” said Alex Serna, program manager at the teen recovery center

The center is open from 10:30 a.m to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, and next month will be open on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Parents should bring in their child as soon as they suspect he or she is using drugs, said Serna, adding that, if it is on a weekend, come in on Monday as levels could still be in their system.

Signs to watch for are grades slipping, money disappearing, sleeping more, different groups of friends and lashing out in anger.

“If you don’t know, it’s hard to catch,” said Serna, who  recommends  keeping an eye on prescription drugs in the house, noting they have been abused by teens. The initial drug test is free. Subsequent tests are $25.

If a teen tests positive, the parent will be informed and can have the teen assessed at the center, Serna said.

The Ramona center offers an outpatient teen recovery program from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. weekdays with frequency of attendance determined by the teen’s exposure to drugs.  The fee for the program is on a sliding scale based on income, and McAlister accepts  Medi-Cal.

“McAlister does not refuse anyone because of money,” said Serna.

The afternoon sessions include educational topics that focus on alcohol and drugs and life activities such as decision-making. Process groups allow teens to discuss what is going on in their lives and what is bothering them.

Describing the atmosphere as safe and positive, Serna and treatment counselor Heather Dixon noted that teens who would not normally get together talk with each other in the process groups.

“It’s really a time to leave the labels and masks behind” explained Dixon.

Random drug testing is provided, a psychologist performs mental assessments, life enhancement activities teach how to have fun without using drugs or alcohol, and parents are encouraged to attend the family sessions. Serna said a teen’s recovery rate increases about 50 percent with family support.

According to Dixon, they see teens from all economic levels. She described their clients as good kids who have dreams just like anyone else.

“They just slipped,” she said. “They just took a wrong turn and they don’t know how to get back. They need support and they need guidance.”

Among observations that the counselors noted: crystal meth is making a comeback as a drug of choice, and many teens believe marijuana is legal in the state because of the availability of medical marijuana.

For more information about the teen recovery center or its free initial drug test, call 760-788-6520.