Hope Academy student Sophi Herrick, 16, talks about her experience coming to Hope Academy recovery school to work toward sobriety while completing her education, at the Fairbanks addiction treatment center in Indianapolis.
Around 9 p.m. on a school night, idling outside of Warren Central High School, Daniel Herrick slowly realized his teenage daughter wasn’t going to walk out of the building.
Sophi said she had band practice until 8 p.m. It took Herrick about an hour to realize she lied. She was on the run.
This, he says, remains the scariest moment of his life — and he spent more than 20 years on the night shift as an Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Officer.
That night in September 2016 was just the first time Sophi ran. Over the following eight months she would disappear three times, usually for a couple of weeks. Once she hid for a couple of months.
At first her dad alerted all her friends and family, including her two older brothers, with a Facebook post that got something like 3,000 shares, Sophi said. It was a shocking turn for the talented bass guitarist and Advanced Placement student.
By the third time, Herrick only told her grandmother and a few of his fellow officers.
At times, Sophi ended up homeless, breaking into apartments with her friends. The 16-year-old was using heroin and methamphetamine, but also experimenting with prescription pain medications, acid, crack — “basically anything that someone would put on the table.” Once she nodded off and spent the night sleeping on the curb.
Eventually, a police officer would recognize her and she’d be returned home with track marks and bruises up her arms.
Sophi may be young, but she was escaping from full-grown problems: depression and suicidal thoughts compounded by the sudden and traumatic death of her mother.
An estimated 1.3 million 12- to 17-year-olds nationwide had a substance abuse disorder in 2014, the most recent data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. About half of all students who return to traditional schools after treatment relapse within a year.
This was true for Sophi, even though she said Warren Central tried to help. After missing most of the fall semester, she ended up transferring to Hope Academy, the only school in the state accredited specifically to help teens overcome substance abuse while working toward a regular diploma.
By the time she wound up at Hope, Sophi had been using for about five years.
She started with marijuana at 10 years old. Someone in the neighborhood gave it to her. It would be just the first in a seemingly long line of offers introducing her to new substances.
Experts say this kind of early substance abuse often leads to devastating addictions in young adults — like heroin or other opioids — contributing to the country’s public health crisis. More people in Indiana now die from drug poisoning than in car accidents.
“There’s not an opiate addict that I’ve talked to between 18 and 23 that didn’t start at marijuana and alcohol,” said Rachelle Gardner, director of Hope Academy.
Sharon Levy, child substance abuse expert and director of the Adolescent Substance use and Addiction Program program in Boston, said she’s seen hundreds of teenagers struggling with addiction, and they typically start by using alcohol and marijuana. That behavior makes it more likely they’ll meet someone who will introduce them to opioids, she said.
“The younger you are, the more vulnerable you are,” Levy said