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Kauaʻi residents want on-island inpatient substance abuse treatment options for their keiki

Courtesy County of Kauaʻi

Tracy Fu is planning the celebration of life for her son Austin.

“He enjoyed life, but he also struggled with addiction as an adolescent and then as an adult,” Fu said last week. “And it was hard. It was a battle every day.”

Austin Thronas died last August of a fentanyl overdose. Just days after, Fu stepped outside her house to see the throes of addiction close to home.

“About 12:15 in the morning, I heard a car running outside of my house, which isn't normal," Fu said. “I went outside to see what it was and I found a car that was running. In the car was two people, one of them was a young boy that looked like he was about 12 years old smoking a pipe.”

Where Fu lives on Kauaʻi, there is no on-island inpatient option for substance abuse treatment for children. Oftentimes, that means kids and young adults have to travel elsewhere for help — and are split up from their loved ones. Fu went to every appointment and family day she could.

“To put a family on an airplane, even if it was just to visit for the day, you're talking about $2,000 out of pocket to send myself and three kids to go over and see him,” Fu said. “There was no way that that was going to happen. We couldn't afford that.”

The island has been without an adolescent treatment center since Hurricane ʻIniki destroyed the Serenity House in 1992. Efforts to open a center have stalled, while the need grows.

In 2017, Grove Farm Company gifted about six acres to the County of Kauaʻi for an Adolescent Treatment and Healing Center. After a string of issues with a service provider, the facility never opened.

The county allowed the state Department of Health to use it as a quarantine facility during the pandemic. Then, the county slated its Office of the Prosecuting Attorney to move into the building. That also hasn’t happened yet.

“There's the building, it was built, the land secured, the funding made possible so that the building was constructed,” Kahu Jade Waiʻaleʻale Battad said. “It's a beautiful place. And it is now there on the site given by Grove Farm and it sits empty.”

Battad has been part of community efforts to get a facility up and running since 2003. She blessed the land when it was gifted by Grove Farm.

As a reverend, she’s seen addicts and families struggle.

“I have done more than my fair share of funerals for people who have died and or overdosed from fentanyl,” she said.

The County of Kauaʻi began talks with Hawaiʻi Health Systems Corporation to deed the land and building for their ownership and operation back in July 2021. Those talks have since been sidelined.

Grove Farm filed a lawsuit earlier this month to get the gifted land and building back. They say the county hasn’t used the land according to its deed, specifically a clause that states the land must be used “in perpetuity solely for adult and adolescent health care use.”

Mayor Derek Kawakami said his priority is getting the center up and running, not county ownership, and that he welcomes the court’s judgment, in a statement earlier this month.

But while this legal battle plays out in court, Fu says she’ll keep advocating.

“I've seen firsthand how the addiction takes a toll on the adolescent. I've seen how they feel rejected by the community. I've seen how people look at them differently. They talk about it differently,” she said. “There is a stigma to it. They already know that what they're doing is wrong. So the treatment center would give the adolescents a clean and safe place to reset their heart, their mind, their body, and their soul.”

Sabrina Bodon was Hawaiʻi Public Radio's government reporter.
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