Despite strong need, youth drug treatment center on Kauai sits empty 3 years after it was built

Construction on Kauai’s Adolescent Treatment and Healing Center wrapped up three years ago.
Published: Oct. 3, 2022 at 2:08 PM HST|Updated: Oct. 3, 2022 at 5:01 PM HST

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Construction on Kauai’s Adolescent Treatment and Healing Center wrapped up three years ago. But the mostly taxpayer-funded project has yet to help a single child.

“The empty beds,” said former Kauai County Council Member Mel Rapozo, during a tour of the property with Hawaii News Now. “How many lives could we have saved?”

Behind each door at the center, there’s a glimpse of what could be: A safe place, a second chance. “So this here is the dormitory wing,” Rapozo said, during the visit. “This will be their home.”

But despite two decades of planning and more than $7 million, it’s a vision that has yet to become reality.

Rapozo has spent years advocating for the creation of the youth in-patient drug treatment facility. It would be the island’s first. “The hardest part about putting up a project like this is the land. It’s the funding for the construction,” Rapozo said. “It’s all here. We ready.”

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So why aren’t any kids being helped?

He says all this time, the only thing that’s been missing is a service provider.

Initially, the county of Kauai was supposed to be responsible for finding an agency to run the place after Grove Farm donated the property.

“When the land was donated to the county the condition was very simple,” Rapozo said. “The county was to have this place opened for our kids in two years.”

But after negotiations with providers fell through twice, the county council voted to give property back to Grove Farm last month. Meanwhile, drugs are increasingly infiltrating the lives of our youth.

A newly released Hawaii Student Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Use Survey showed about 1 in every 10 middle and high school students have a probable substance use disorder indicating a need for treatment.

And youth aren’t just experimenting with alcohol, nicotine and marijuana.

The study showed students as young as eighth grade were also trying meth, opiates and cocaine.

It also revealed Kauai’s youth are using drugs and alcohol more than other parts of the state. “I cannot tell you how many times I’ve gotten calls from parents. ‘Mel, help. We got to get our kid some help,’” Rapozo said.

It’s desperation the Thronas family knows too well.

“My mom was fighting for this treatment center before my brother passed away,” said Earl Thronas Jr. “She was fighting for this place when I was still in jail as an adult.”

Both siblings went to Kapaa High School. That’s when their battles with addiction began.

“Before you know it we’re doing cocaine in school regularly. Every day,” said Thronas. “As I got older the drugs just kind of progressed as far as seriousness.”

When Thronas was 15, he was sent to the mainland for treatment.

“Especially as an adolescent it’s hard to concentrate on your recovery when you’re already uprooted from your home and are thousands of miles away from your family,” he said.

That cycle of addition continued for more than a decade until a fentanyl overdose nearly killed him last year.

Thronas said, “I stopped. And I was seven days sober (from drugs) when I found my brother.”

For him, walking through the treatment center’s empty halls makes him heartsick. The 28-year-old is now working towards becoming a certified substance abuse counselor.

“Hopefully I can become an adolescent counselor here,” he said.

Rapozo added, “The fact that now this is back, really in the hands of the community. We don’t have to deal with the state procurement laws. And we can go out and find the best operator to help our kids.”

Land owner Grove Farm also wants to get the facility open but needs help with funding.

“Kauai has no shortage of wealth. We just need a little of it to get this place open,” said Rapozo.

“This will change lives. But we got to start.”

Officials with Grove Farm say their next step is to create a new community non-profit. Going forward a spokesperson said it aims to try and secure funding from a recent national opioid settlement. Hawaii was awarded $78 million.

In the meantime, Grove Farm is also looking for donations.

There’s no timeline for when the treatment center will open.