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Personal Stories: TEENS DRAWN INTO 'DRUG TRAP' - ''My dealer actually mixed the crack with meth.''
Crystal Meth Users Survivor Tells Harrowing Story Of Addiction

By the age of 12, she was regularly sneaking out of her southeast Calgary home, dabbling in drugs and hanging out with a much older crowd.

Her escalating drug use over the next year would ultimately lead to a fight with her mom. She ran away and moved in with a boyfriend who was in his early twenties.

It wasn't long before the teen was sleeping on the streets, where she got addicted to meth and worked as a prostitute. "I was just on the streets smoking crack all of the time," says Michelle, whose real name can't be used under a publication ban. "I knew where to get the crack.

"My dealer actually mixed the crack with meth."

Then, after nearly two years of shifting from the streets to her parent's home to a safe house to the streets again, she hit rock bottom.

"I met these guys and they were wanting to traffic me," she says. "They were like, 'You are coming to Mexico with me. I said, 'Am I really? No.' "So I phoned my mom."

Michelle, now a striking 15-year-old who lives at a suburban home with her family, has come a long way since that fateful night. She tells her story to help prevent others from falling into the same trap. Each year, dozens of Alberta teenagers run away from home in favour of a life on the street.

According to the latest count, in May there were 154 homeless kids in Calgary between the ages of 13 and 17, up from the 56 counted six years earlier. Another 327 young people between the ages of 18 and 24 are also homeless. Some of those teens end up like Michelle -- addicted to hard drugs and involved in prostitution.

Michelle's story begins with a relatively normal family moving to a rough neighbourhood after her dad lost his job. Her mom, who had some health issues, was often busy with her other children who have special needs.

In junior high school, Michelle started experimenting with drugs, smoking pot with some classmates.

It soon escalated to pot laced with crack and, soon after she left home, crack laced with meth. Before long, Michelle was addicted to drugs and involved in prostitution.

"It wasn't me when I was using," she says. "I was soulless." Her mom Catherine, also not her real name, would search the streets with her husband, looking for their daughter, on an almost nightly basis. But they were unable to find her, so they decided to get help through the provincial Protection of Sexually Exploited Children Act.

The act, established in 1999 as the Children Involved in Prostitution Act, was created to allow police and social workers to apprehend young people who are victims of sexual exploitation. Children also voluntarily seek services under the act.

According to statistics from the province, 880 children have received services under the legislation -- including 98 in the 2007-08 fiscal year.

Michelle was first apprehended at the age of 13, but she refused to stay with the program. "I whined and complained at court," she remembers. The teen, who was gaunt with washed-out skin and hair, returned to the streets.

"It was horrible," says her mom. "I wouldn't eat and sleep when she wasn't home. "I'd phone the police and let them know she was back. As soon as she would leave, I would call them back and report her missing again." Finally, on that fateful night when a group of guys wanted to send her to Mexico, Michelle recognized she was being sexually exploited.

She agreed to enter a treatment facility. After more than six weeks in a safe house, Michelle went to a treatment facility in small-town Alberta, where she stayed for an entire year.

"We thought that would be the best bet . . . to separate her completely from Calgary," her mom says. Michelle, who was one of six girls in the facility, says it was difficult detoxing alongside other addicted teenagers.

But she was tough and her family remained by her side, visiting their daughter on weekends and bringing her home when they could to help integrate her back into their lives. She's now back at home, where she spends a lot of time with her parents and gets home-schooled.

Around the same time she left the small-town facility, Michelle and her family joined a program called High Fidelity Wraparound.

The program started 11/2 years ago, after the United Way provided funding as part of its Strengthening Families initiative. The program helps young people put together a team that will support them in meeting their needs and goals.

"The youth drive the process," says program supervisor Melissa Gruber. "They decide who is on their team, they decide what they want to work on . . . and they have a whole team to support them in doing it." Michelle says the program has helped her stay clean. Her mom says it has helped to change their lives.

"It keeps us working on goals and things for the future," says Catherine. Michelle says her experience has made her realize she wants to become a counsellor working with youth facing similar problems. In the meantime, she will volunteer with the wraparound program.

"I realized what I am here to do with the rest of my life, which is to help people with any of the same issues," she says. "To change the world almost."

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