Northwest tribes turn treatment center into national model

SPOKANE, Wash. - The Healing Lodge of the Seven Nations is rapidly expanding its substance abuse treatment services to Indian children throughout the nation.

Nestled on 38 wooded acres on the outskirts of Spokane, the Healing Lodge is a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization operated by the Spokane, Kalispel, Colville, Umatilla, Kootenai, Coeur d'Alene and Nez Perce tribes.

The 30-bed residential chemical dependency Youth Primary Regional Treatment Center is dedicated to helping Native American youth and their families heal from the trauma of alcohol and drug abuse. The lodge, which opened in 1994, serves between 150 to 200 young people between the ages of 13 and 17 every year.

Most clients come from the Northwest and Alaska. But the cutting-edge excellence of the program is giving it both a national reputation and a burgeoning waiting list.

Treatment strategies are varied and focused upon the uniqueness of each client. Treatment planning emphasizes building on the strength and resilience of family and community to ensure a strong foundation of support for youth journeying toward a life free of abuse and addiction.

Unique to the program is the emphasis on family counseling as well as individual treatment. The board of directors and staff recognize that substance abuse is not an isolated problem of separate individuals, but rather part of a family dynamic. For permanent healing to occur, the family must, ideally, be started on the road to wellness together. Old thoughts and emotional conflicts that fostered substance abuse problems in the first place need to be addressed so that lasting change can occur.

To facilitate such change, the lodge makes on-site family counseling available to family members of each youth in treatment.

"My focus is making sure this program meets the recovery needs of each individual child," says John Gunther, the lodge's director. "It's most important to give the kids - and the families - the tools they need when they go back home."

Treatment also relies heavily on cultural and spiritual values and traditions. Staff in the cultural, recreation and educational programs work hard to facilitate the individual cultural traditions of each young person while utilizing time-honored methods such as the talking circle and the sweat lodge to further healing.

Inpatient treatment averages 60 to 90 days. While the young people are undergoing detox and participating in counseling, they can keep up with their class work in the on-site school, which is certified and accredited with local school District 81. Education specialists help residents identify areas where they need assistance and devise appropriate educational curriculums. Residents can also take advantage of a GED program.

In alignment with the lodge's commitment to cultural traditions, the Healing Lodge School has developed a Native American Studies program. Students are encouraged to participate in drumming, dancing and different crafts. They learn about tribal issues - self-determination, sovereignty, enrollment and tribal history - and take on individual research topics, studying issues that affect their individual tribes.

Even the design of the facility reflects its cultural focus.

The first thing arriving residents see are the flags of the seven member nations displayed on the circle linking the three main buildings. The cultural study room in the recreation building also is circular and has the four directions graphically displayed in floor tiles and ceiling. Tribal symbols are incorporated into masonry throughout the complex.

Not surprisingly, Healing Lodge board of directors president Julia Davis says the multifaceted treatment program, which meets both Department of Health and Human Services and state of Washington standards, has attracted a lot of attention at alcohol treatment center meetings sponsored by the Indian Health Service.

"We have found that we are one of the more sophisticated treatment centers," she says. "People look at us and say, 'How did you do this?' and 'How did you do that?

"We have had Native people visit us from Canada, California, from Navajo and from the Eastern bands."

At the lodge's May 17, 2000, vision meeting, the board and the administrative staff, residents and stakeholders formally set the task of becoming a national treatment model as a mission goal.

Other ambitious goals set for the next five-year period include increased staff skill training and the development of methamphetamine addiction prevention services.

Acquisition of a transitional facility to provide housing, services and a "safe, nurturing environment" to residents who cannot return to their home situations at the end of treatment is planned. Staff at the facility, which will be acquired within the next two years, will network with Spokane agencies to provide educational and job training as well as ongoing counseling services.

The transitional facility will be used as a model for tribes that desire to establish their own transitional shelters.

As part of the beefed-up transitional program, Gunther says the lodge recently received a three-year, $565,000 grant to provide for an aftercare specialist to follow-up on each child who goes back to home and reservation.

Davis mentioned that computer hookup links at local tribal alcohol program centers will soon enable children to keep in touch with the Healing Lodge.

"Not all the sites have access to a computer," Davis says. "But it is open for any of our patients if they're having problems to be able to contact someone."

A 1-800 hotline for past residents is in the works.