They say that bad news sells newspapers. The “they” in this case is the Pew Research Center, a “nonpartisan fact tank that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world.”

Fancy, shmancy.

Pew made this “bad news sells” conclusion after 20 years of polling. My question is, given all the bad news these days, why is the newspaper business so in the tank (Daily Press excluded)? And, considering that Pew is pronounced the same as “phew,” maybe they should have taken a poll before they selected their name?

Bucking this negative news notion, hopefully this will be about something positive in our community. Something that was “born and raised” in Santa Monica.

Angels at Risk is a nonprofit organization, which creates a haven for teens and families coping with substance abuse. It was founded 14 years ago by Susie Spain, a friend of mine who is a former addict with 29 years of sobriety.

I’m writing about Angels this week because on Monday, Sept. 27 at 6 p.m., they resume their program at Santa Monica High School. It’s open to all teens at risk and their families. On average, some 40 to 50 “angels” age 12 to 18 and about 15 to 25 parents, come to the group weekly. After 14 years, that’s a huge number of families who have been helped in a time of crisis.

At the nadir of her own journey in addiction, Susie decided that if she ever made it through, she’d help other kids and families because it was such a lonely journey.

“When I was growing up, it was about the child, not the family, and it was a relentless struggle,” she said. “If parents could just get involved, it evens out the pressure on the child. It’s like in the movie ‘Traffic,’ it’s about the family, not just about the girl.”

“It encapsulates why I do what I do,” said Susie, who’s a certified addiction specialist.

Most of the kids in attendance have been caught with drugs and/or alcohol in Santa Monica, but they can be from anywhere, from Inglewood to Malibu. Susie said these kids from different backgrounds find they have “the same feelings but a different set of circumstances, and it creates a bond.”

The involvement of the family is a key to Angels at Risk’s success. “My belief is that an addiction problem in a teenager is a family problem,” Susie said. “If parents are willing to take responsibility and say, ‘I might have helped you get here, maybe I can look at what I’ve done, too,’ or at least say ‘I’m going to help you get through this,’ it gives the child a great chance to make it.”

Unfortunately, teen drug abuse in America is at alarming levels. In 2002, more than 1.3 million teens in the U.S. age 12 to 17 were dependent on or abused illicit drugs. Perhaps “alarming” is understating it.

The president’s 2008 report indicated that overall teen drug use is down, but there are troubling signs. Teens view abusing prescription and over-the-counter drugs as safer than street drugs and therefore, OK. Of even more concern is that busy parents may not be addressing these dangers with their teens.

One statistic that jumped out at me is that eight in 10 felons sent to prison in California abuse drugs or alcohol. Angles at Risk advocates that the crisis requires that the community pull together to help these kids and their families.

Angels At Risk facilitators talk with parents about the various issues for a teen at risk and suggest counseling by a trained therapist. “If you have a family in a room with a third person, a child will feel more acknowledged seeing that someone is listening and trying to understand.”

Angels at Risk also uses a powerful tool called “Notes from the Heart/Love Notes.” Parents and teens write to each other, telling what went well that week, what went wrong and what needs to be worked on.

Warning signs of substance abuse include staying out late, anger, failing grades and lack of communication. What Angels at Risk has done over the years is to open up a dialogue between parents and kids that’s safe and protected. “When the child gets identified as ‘at risk,’ if the parents don’t blame and shame them, there’s hope,” Susie said. “If, however, they are constantly the problem and the loser, how can they change? They’re getting high because they already don’t feel good about themselves.”

If any of the above sounds familiar, or you know a family in that crisis, you can phone Angels at Risk at (310) 457 1421, or go to Go to the website anyway. Reading about kids and parents overcoming serious problems is inspiring. Take that, Pew Research.

Jack can be reached at

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