Photo by Chris Rogers Winona County Sheriff’s Office Investigator Kate Loken (right) showed (from left) Christina Uribe Nitti, Heather Sharkey, and Judy Casper drug paraphernalia concealed in a mock teenager’s room as part of a Winona County Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention (ASAP) parent education event.

Youth drug abuse: Hidden in plain sight




Could most parents recognize drugs or drug paraphernalia if they saw it in their children’s room? Maybe not. At an event this weekend, Winona area parents went on a scavenger hunt of sorts, seeing if they could find all of the drug paraphernalia hidden in plain sight in a mock teenager’s room. “This is really eye-opening for me,” said parent and nursing professor Christina Uribe Nitti.

At an health and wellness expo last weekend at the Winona Middle School, staff and volunteers from the Winona County Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention (ASAP) transformed a classroom into a faux teen bedroom, complete with dirty clothes on the floor, and littered it with household items that may be used to smoke or conceal drugs and spy-movie-worthy drug hiding devices. Now-sober Winona County Drug Court participant Zarna Polus and Winona County Sheriff’s Office Investigator Kate Loken showed other parents how users would take and hide drugs. Savvy parents spotted some things. Other things they would have never found on their own. Many were surprised by the creativity that went into devising discreet paraphernalia.

“I feel kind of dumbfounded,” Alisa Yeager said after walking through. Yeager’s children are so young she did not feel she needed to worry yet, but the event made her think.

Addiction is widespread in the Winona area, Judy Casper and Mary Hyde agreed. “You can pretend it’s not happening, but that doesn’t work,” Casper stated. “My grandparents — that generation never discussed alcohol abuse and addiction, but my grandfather was an alcoholic,” Hyde said. “Now people are talking about it,” she added. Casper continued, “They’re not bad people. It’s an illness.”

A former synthetic drug abuser, Polus was given a choice between prison and treatment in 2014. She chose to pursue recovery. “I struggled a lot along the way,” she said. Polus is still working to repair the damage it did, including causing her to lose custody of her son. “It destroyed my family,” Polus stated. “I’m just trying to get back,” she added.

Even if parents do recognize warning signs of substance abuse in their children or take it upon themselves to talk proactively with their children about the issue, knowing what to say can be hard.

“My son is 14. He’s trying to fit in, and it’s very hard to watch the choices he’s making because of what he’s seen from me,” Polus stated. Polus said her goal is to offer her son unconditional love and support and encourage him to talk about what is happening, not hide it. “I’m just trying to let my son know that I’m here for him no matter what,” she stated.

ASAP staff pointed parents toward resources that advise being caring, offering accurate information about the dangers of substance abuse, and seeking professional help for youth addiction. More advice for parents on how to talk to children about drugs and alcohol is available online at  


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