Research of Note from October 2005

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Declines in Youth Drug Use Don’t Tell the Full Story

The 2004 National Survey on Drug Use and Health
U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)
Available at

The federal government is quite proud of its new survey data showing the continued decline of illicit drug use by the nation’s youth and young adults. And, as usual, the media have dutifully reported those findings under some variation of the headline, “Drug Use Down Among Teens.”

But reading between the lines reveals a broader picture.

In early September, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Office of National Drug Control Policy and SAMHSA issued a news release touting a “9 percent decline in illicit drug use among American youth between the ages of 12 and 17 from 2002 to 2004.”

The data come from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), an annual survey conducted since 1971 in the residences of tens of thousands of people.

The 9 percent decline was calculated by dividing the difference between the 2002 and 2004 percentages of 12- to 17-year-olds who reported using illicit drugs in the past month (11.6 percent and 10.6 percent, respectively) by the 2002 figure. (That’s actually an 8.6 percent decline – all other percentages in the report are rounded to the nearest tenth.)

What is not made clear is that the decline was calculated using the years 2002 and 2004 because the decline was not significant when measured from one year to the next.

There were also no significant changes from 2003 to 2004 in the rates of illicit drug use by youth or young adults (ages 18 to 25) over the past year or over their lifetimes.

Wading more deeply into the report reveals some less-touted but useful information:

• Lifetime nonmedical use of several pain relievers, including Vicodin, Percocet and OxyContin, rose at statistically significant rates in both 2003 and 2004 for young adults. In 2004, the report says, 24.3 percent of young adults reported ever having used a narcotic pain reliever for nonmedical purposes.

• Among youth ages 12 to 17, past month illicit drug use was by far the highest among American Indians, at 26 percent – more than double the rates for whites (11.1 percent), Hispanics (10.2 percent), African-Americans (9.3 percent) or Asians (6 percent). Youth of two or more races had the second-highest rate of drug use, at 12.2 percent.

• Nearly one-third (32.6 percent) of white youth ages 12 to 20 reported using alcohol in the past month.

• All marijuana use was stable from 2003 to 2004. However, SAMHSA underscored a “striking” decline from 2002 to 2004 in past-month use by 12- to 17-year-old boys (from 9.1 percent to 8.1 percent) in its recent press release.

• The percentages of youth who perceived that binge drinking, using cocaine once a month or trying heroin would put them at “great risk” of harm all decreased slightly between 2003 and 2004.

Another caveat not likely to be explained in news reports is that the survey underwent major methodological changes in 2002. (See “Drug Use Soars? Blame the $30,” October 2004.) The reports since then, therefore, cannot be compared with reports based on data collected before 2002, which complicates efforts to place recent findings in the context of surveys going back more than three decades.

Alaskan Foster Care Alumni Show Optimism, Despite Past Hardships

Alaskan Foster Care Alumni Study
Casey Family Programs, University of Alaska Anchorage, et al.
Available at

This study of Alaskan foster care alumni paints a more upbeat picture than have some other recent studies of former foster children and adds to the belief that strong relationships with adults make a big difference in youths’ long-term happiness.
Published on the heels of two larger alumni studies – the “Northwest” study by Casey Family Programs and the “Midwest” study by Chapin Hall Center for Children – this one does find that foster youth in the Last Frontier experience many of the same hardships as their peers in the Lower 48. (See “Research of Note” and “Evaluation Spotlight,” June.)

Like their southern counterparts, Alaskan foster care alumni reported experiencing high rates of homelessness (38 percent), treatment for behavioral or mental health problems (80 percent), involvement in the criminal justice system (20 percent), use of public assistance (77 percent) and going without health insurance (39 percent).

But unlike the Northwest study – which reported the overwhelming failure of alumni to succeed as adults – the Alaskan study emphasizes that, by ages 19 to 29, “many Alaskan foster care alumni were thriving.” It notes that “through persistence, emotional support and connections, and their own resourcefulness … they have grown into contributing members of the communities where they live.”

The study found that 86 percent of the 66 alumni interviewed – about half of whom were Alaskan Natives – reported being “happy” or “very happy.”

“These young people are telling us that, despite what they’ve been through, they still see themselves as happy and having a future,” says Beth Sirles, director of the University of Alaska Anchorage School of Social Work and one of the study’s lead authors.

The alumni had an average of five abuse and neglect reports filed with the state during their childhoods. Alumni averaged more than 13 out-of-home placements while in foster care, and 35 percent had run away between one and five times. While nearly six in 10 were working at the time of the interviews, and nearly nine in 10 had earned high school diplomas or GEDs, their average annual salary was $12,300.

In light of such numbers, Sirles says, the feelings of happiness reported by alumni are “a strong endorsement of the resiliency of youth. … No matter what their circumstances, they see a bright future for themselves.”

“I think that’s a very important message for us who are providing care and preparing youth for adulthood – their sense of self-accomplishment and the ability to reach their goals.”

One possible reason for their optimism: the passage of time.

Sirles notes that the alumni were interviewed as much as 10 years after leaving foster care, and had already found employment and education to stabilize their lives.

Another factor prominent in the Alaskan foster care experience, according to Sirles, is the Alaskan emphasis on social contact. Nearly three-quarters of the alumni remained in Alaska after leaving care. The average number of friends reported by each alumnus was eight, and one in five alumni lived in a household of more than five people.

More than seven in 10 reported having had a positive, close relationship with an adult while in foster care, and almost three-quarters of those alumni said they were still in contact with that adult. Half of those close relationships were with former foster parents, while nearly 10 percent were with biological family members.

“The sense of community is a very important piece in understanding Alaska in general,” Sirles says. “We are so isolated and remote that we form extended family communities with people, whether we’re related to them or not.”