'Hidden in Plain Sight' seminar aims at protecting youth

The “Hidden in Plain Sight” seminar offered adults who frequently interact with youth resources such as classes, tips on identifying risky behaviors, and connections with vendors who work in the field.

POWHATAN – As varied as it was, “Hidden in Plain Sight” had one central goal – to equip adults who interact regularly with youth of all ages with resources to help better understand and protect them.

Groups such as Goochland Powhatan Community Services, the Powhatan County Sheriff’s Office and Harbor Point Behavioral Health came together on Wednesday, June 26 to put on “Hidden in Plain Sight: Toddlers to Teens, Treatment, Trends, and Tactics.”

About 100 people attended the free event held at Powhatan High School, which was less than organizers were hoping for but still a good turnout, said Robin Pentecost, behavioral health and wellness supervisor at Goochland Powhatan Community Services. The attendees included employees or volunteers from schools, churches, government agencies, nonprofits, and parents.

“I think it’s a good mix of people,” Pentecost said.

The program started with a powerful and personal message from keynote speaker, Damaris Santiago, clinical director of operations at Harbor Point. She shared the emotional story of her son’s drug addiction at age 16 after his girlfriend was killed in a hit and run accident and he was devastated and acted out.

“My son changed from day to night in a split second,” she said.

She talked about her family’s anguish not only at witnessing his downward spiral but the pain of being victim’s of his drug abuse as he stole from them and constantly lied to them. She also struggled with her predisposition as a mother to enable her son’s behavior.

As a licensed clinical psychologist, she also had to deal with her own guilt and overcoming her prejudices about the roles of parents when it came to drug addiction in youth.

Many months later, Santiago said her son came to his parents and asked for their help to get clean. Despite the hurt he caused, they did help him, and he was able to turn his life around and go on to a healthy, successful life.

Pentecost said the organizers invited Santiago and asked her to share her story because people wanted to hear a story of hope.

“They were hugging her and thanking her for sharing her personal story. We needed someone who could show us that people recover and that they get better,” she said.

She added that Santiago’s story humanized the program and set the tone for the day.

“We all have our struggles and our stories and this was one of success,” Pentecost said.

Santiago’s speech was followed by two sets of breakout sessions with multiple topics to choose from for people interacting with youth of all age groups. All of the sessions were aimed at equipping adults with information to help them assess situations to make sound decisions and point them to resources that could help further.

Detective Austin Schwartz led a session called “Internet and Social Media Safety” to show adults how to find resources on monitoring their child’s online activity and educating them to make wise decisions.

He talked about issues such as sexting, which involves sending nude or semi-nude photos of themselves; types of cyber bullying, which range in severity from trolling to identity theft and physical threats; predators using video games to gain a youth’s trust and exploit him or her; creating an online reputation that could be harmful with job searches and college admittance, and predators catfishing with the aim of exploiting a minor.

“When I was growing up, my parents were worried about the stranger down the street. We weren’t connected in the world like we are today,” Schwartz said. “Now, the stranger down the street isn’t all we need to be worried about. We can be exploited, abused and harmed by a stranger hundreds and thousands of miles awhile thanks to the internet and social media and the influence it has on our lives today.”

(For more information about internet safety and youth, see story on right side of Page 8).

In another session, Sarah Birckhead, regional coordinator of the Tobacco Control Program for the Virginia Department of Health, educated people about JUULs, vaping, nicotine and ways they are affecting today’s youth. The e-cigarettes work by using a battery to convert liquid nicotine and other flavoring into an inhalable vapor with no burning of tobacco, she said. Puffing activates the battery-powered heating device, which vaporizes the liquid in the cartridge.

Birckhead pointed out trends such as the alarming surge in e-cigarette use from 2017 to 2018. One study she cited saw a rise in 12th-graders who reported vaping in the past 30 days increasing from 11 percent in 2017 to 20.8 percent in 2018.

She particularly focused on the JUUL, which has a sleek, slender design that makes it easy to hide and appeals to young people’s affinity for high-tech devices, she said. All JUULs contain nicotine, with the original having a 5-percent nicotine content, the same as a pack of cigarettes.

Nicotine lowers impulse controls and harms growing brains, which are still developing until age 25, she said. It is also highly addictive.

Due to the tobacco session, organizers are already having conversations about how to publicize the fact that a new law that went into effect July 1, 2019, makes it illegal for someone under 21 to buy or use tobacco products, Pentecost said.

Other programs held during the day included a “Revive!” session, which offered training on how to recognize and respond to an opioid overdose emergency with the administration of naloxone; recognizing the signs of mental health and substance abuse in young people; understanding the effects of adverse childhood experiences; and understanding normal behaviors for infants and toddlers.

Throughout the program, guests could visit the “Hidden in Plain Sight” exhibit in the library to learn what kind of tools are being used to help young people hide risky behaviors. The sheriff’s office walked people through this display.

The program also included a number of vendors in the fields of counseling, mental health, youth services and more to help those in attendance make good connections.

Pentecost said she received feedback from people who attended the event and it varied widely. One person said it helped know where to go for information and what to share with colleagues, friends and family members. Another was shocked by the “Hidden in Plain Sight” exhibit and how many ways there were to hide risky behavior. Yet another said one of the presentations changed his or her mind about how to talk to children about drug misuse and creating a culture of accountability.

Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.

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