Drug abuse remains top county issue

Prevention specialist position possible missing link in addressing growing use of meth

SHELL LAKE— The Washburn County ad hoc committee on drug abuse has proposed a new county position to help deal with the increase in drug-related issues, namely methamphetamine, in Washburn County.
The committee, organized by Thomas Mackie, Washburn County Board chair, was tasked with identifying the best way to tackle the drug crisis in the county.
Friday, Feb. 2, members of the committee held a presentation for local media about what the committee has done since its creation last summer, the current state of meth use in the county, and the committee’s proposal to help bring all county resources together to loosen meth’s grip on county residents.
The committee included county board members Terri Reiter, Susan Hansen, Bob Olsgard and Tammy Hopke, and Karen Baker, before she resigned from the county board. The committee also included Cara Murden of the Washburn County Sheriff’s Office.
The committee held six meetings in 2017 that included presentations from county organizations that deal with or have resources that could help deal with the increase in drug/meth-related issues.

Spike in foster care cases
According to testimony from committee members and others at the meeting, the impact of the drug situation is being felt across the county, from community organizations to law enforcement including human services, faith organizations and many others. One of the more tragic impacts of meth in the county is the increase in the number of children in foster care.
“In 2015 was a huge spike, it was one none of us could predict. Our out-of-home care costs went up by $400,000 from 2014 to 2015,” said Jim LeDuc, director of Washburn County Health and Human Services.
Out-of-home care, or foster care, in Washburn County encompasses the services the county provides to children in need of a safe living environment when their primary caregivers cannot provide one.
Between 2012 and 2016 the share of foster care placements due to meth increased from 13 percent to 34 percent. Since last year the county has increased services to provide AODA case management in response to the increase in foster care placements related to drugs. The county received funding to provide these services but they are not closing the widening gap of people living under the influence of meth.
Law enforcement data is another place where the county’s meth issue is also obvious.

Meth arrests, property crime up substantially
In 2015 about 92 grams of meth were seized by law enforcement in Washburn County and 24 meth-related arrests were made. In 2016 law enforcement seized about 74 grams of meth with 35 meth-related arrests.
“I would anticipate 2017 numbers to only be higher,” said Murden. County law enforcement believes the increase in meth arrests has some correlation to the increase in property crimes. In 2015 about $236,500 in property crimes were reported. By 2016 that figure had nearly doubled to $410,400.
In Washburn County, law enforcement is dealing with the increase in drug-related incidents by enforcing the law, one case at a time. The justice system, too, is handling the increased caseload with no additional staffing.
In their search for solutions the committee learned that there are treatment programs to help people recover from meth, however, they are costly. Burnett County had a meth-diversion program, but due to a lack of funding the program had to be cut in half. That yearlong, high-intensity program was successful, but it requires highly involved case management from county personnel and a long-term commitment from recovering drug users. Due to the costs the ad hoc committee doesn’t see the meth-diversion program as a realistic solution for Washburn County right now.
“There are things that work, we just have no money for them. There’s no resources and then when they give money away they give it to something that’s not really going to work for Washburn County,” said Hopke.
Due to the challenges at all levels the committee believes the best course of action for the county is a position of prevention.
“Separately we can’t leave it all on law enforcement, on Jim (director of health and human services), no one person can do this. We need to pull together and by pulling together we are going to find more success,” said Hopke.

Prevention specialist
The committee proposes a county prevention specialist to help make the connections between organizations in the county that can provide resources and assistance to the county’s drug abuse issue. The proposed position would be an extension of the county for its services and a one-person connection to the other organizations available in the county.
“It’s not just saying ‘don’t do meth, it’s bad,’ it’s also; ‘I recognize maybe someone in your family is struggling and I have access to all of these resources to help you,’” explained Murden.
The committee hopes to use this position as a referral point for individuals who want to recover from meth but don’t know where to start. The prevention specialist position would then connect them to resources to help start their recovery.
The committee is not the first to think of this position, as it exists in other organizations and businesses. According to LeDuc, the Marshfield Clinic coordinates a consortium of specialists that are typically grant funded.
“If we had that position they would be able to tap into a wealth of ideas, activities, training and continued funding. Marshfield funds a lot of minigrants for prevention type of activities. We can’t benefit from them because we don’t have a position representing Washburn County,” said LeDuc.
The next step for the committee’s recommendation is presentation before the full county board at its regular monthly meeting Tuesday, Feb. 20.