Special to The Telegram
A 13-year-old boy received severe burns when his legs caught fire while he inhaled gasoline from a plastic bag in Natuashish June 6. The previous week, an 11-year-old boy received burns over his legs while he sniffed gasoline.
Natuashish RCMP Sgt. Faron Harnum said police responded to the calls and made sure the boys received medical treatment. The 13-year-old is still in hospital in Happy Valley-Goose Bay being treated for his burns. Sgt. Harnum said inhaling gas is not illegal, but the local RCMP does its best to try to curb it.
“We do respond to such requests and we ensure the act is stopped.”
Harnum said they refer the children for medical attention and parents to child welfare (Child Youth and Family Services).
The children who inhale gasoline are known to gather in wooded areas to “sniff,” and Harnum said they have lately been setting small fires to bushes, moss and parts of trees.
He said it isn’t common for the RCMP to receive calls about kids getting burned, but it is common to get calls about gas sniffing. He said local officers do their best to help the community with the problem.
“For the most part, it’s a medical thing, an addiction. It’s also a parenting thing and when it comes to parenting, it takes a community to raise a child.”
Harnum said the community professionals, of which the RCMP is a part, as well as parents need to step up to help.
Solvent abuse in the community is not a new issue. Images of children sniffing gasoline in the late 1990s made international news and, despite lulls, the problem still exists. Youth with addictions were treated outside of the community and sent back, some to continue using and some not. In recent years, parents and community members have taken much of the job of healing into their own hands.
Rose Poker is one of the parents of a solvent-abusing child. She can’t physically get around to search for her 13-year-old son when he’s missing. Like other kids who sniff, sometimes he disappears for days.
Poker is still using crutches after a serious car accident last year, so the single mother sends out her eldest daughter to search. Like others out searching for their kids, she comes home empty handed.
“The kids hide each other,” she said.
Poker’s son went out of province for treatment last year and had his six-month program extended by three months.
When he returned, Poker said he was fine for a while but he recently disappeared for a few days and she found out he was sniffing. But it isn’t only her own son she’s concerned about. She said people know the kids who abuse solvents and she’s starting to see new and younger faces hanging around.
“I’m afraid that they don’t know that they are killing themselves slowly.”
The effects of inhaling propane and gasoline are quick and intense. They include a distorted perception of space and time, emotional disturbances and hallucinations. More severe effects are hypoxia, pneumonia, cardiac failure or cardiac arrest. Suffocation is also a concern for closed in areas. Long term inhaling of gasoline may cause degenerative diseases of the nervous system as well as permanent limb spasms, brain damage, muscle weakness and a loss of smell or hearing.
For the most part, the children syphon the gasoline from vehicles, or steal propane.
Virginia Collins also has a 13-year-old son with an inhalant addiction. He also spent some time out of the community in treatment last year, after which he stayed away from gas sniffing for some time. He started again a few weeks ago.
“I think the problem is that they come back to doing nothing in the community,” she said.
Collins said she wants to stop it before she has to see him sniffing every night again.
“People say you’re not doing enough for your kids and I feel like I’ve done everything.”
She said she can’t keep her son locked up in the house and even if she tried he would eventually find a way out.
Rose and Virginia felt there was more that could be done in the community. From their own experiences, they could see outside treatment may have worked temporarily, but was not solving the problem.
“We do need parents to step in and get motivated. They don’t need others to bring their kids home.”
They saw part of the problem as a lack of things to do in the community for many children.
Natuashish recently had an $8 million recreation centre built in the community, but Collins said it’s geared towards kids who enjoy sports, and many don’t. Those kids don’t have anywhere to go and that is why they end up in the wooded areas around the communities sniffing gas.
The two mothers organized a community meeting with other parents and interested parties on June 6 (coincidentally the same day the second boy was burned). They have also approached the band council to request funding for a youth centre for the young people.
“I remember when I was in my teens, even though we had terrible living conditions, we still had a place to go, there was an arcade and weekly dances. There’s nothing like that for the kids here,” Collins said.
Since the meeting, together with more than a dozen other parents and community members, Rose said they have taken it upon themselves to try to keep the kids away from solvents.
“We are planning to do things with kids every day, like taking them on boil-ups, playing games and having dances every Friday for them. In the meantime, we will be working on other programs for them.”
Rose and Virginia will be doing talk shows on the local radio station every Thursday to encourage more parents and people to get involve with stopping the abuse.
Natuashish Chief Simeon Tshakapesh said there is a lot being done and many people in the community interested in doing what they can to help the kids. He said the community has a lot of recreation programs in place for this summer. He agreed to turn a complex near the new recreation centre into a youth centre and said they would take care of putting games and activities in place for the children. He said they also have a golf range planned for the community.
Tshakapesh said the local addictions team is in the process of creating a solvent abuse program for youth. He couldn’t say when the programs would start.
“The centre is there and Border Beacon is all ready to go.”
Tshakapesh said a community group is also in the process of organizing a trip into the country for the youth engaged in sniffing.
“We’ve been doing a lot in the past couple of years for the kids. Now all they have to do is take the kids and treat them.”
Rose said she is considering leaving the community next year if her son doesn’t improve. She is hoping it won’t come to that, but said the well-being of her family comes first.