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Sobering portrait of meth use in Crow Wing County leads officials to outline policies

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Community Services Director Kara Terry talks to Crow Wing County board
Crow Wing County Attorney Don Ryan, front left, sits next to Community Services Director Kara Terry as she talks to the county board at the Tuesday, March 19, committee of the whole meeting about public efforts to combat methamphetamine use in the county.
Frank Lee | Brainerd Dispatch

Originally published by Pineandlakes Echo Journal

By Frank Lee

Crow Wing County department officials recently painted a picture for the county board about the drug problem in the county and what they are doing about it.

The number of county attorney drug cases increased from about 250 in 2015 to 600 in 2017, and the number of sheriff's office drug cases also rose from almost 50 to 200 during that period.

"(For) those who seek treatment or who are placed in treatment, meth has surpassed alcohol, which is pretty surprising," said Kara Terry, director of community services.

County attorney Don Ryan, Sheriff Scott Goddard and Terry gave a presentation at the Tuesday, March 19, committee of the whole meeting about public efforts to combat meth in the county.

The self-healing communities initiative, the comprehensive re-entry project, screenings, the family home visiting program, foster care and more were among the county's current efforts.

What I can tell you from my perspective is this is the No. 1 public health problem of our time. ... It has killed us financially, it wrecks families, it creates problems in our society at large. This is our No. 1 problem.

"You can see that the opiates are somewhat going down in 2017, but as (Sheriff) Scott (Goddard) mentioned ... we've really seen those start to uptick in 2018. But the important thing is that meth has surpassed all other (controlled) substances for treatment purposes," Terry told the board.

"In 2017, 841 individuals from Crow Wing County went to treatment versus about 57,000 individuals from the state. What we know is about 65 percent of folks that went into treatment were male and 35 percent who went into treatment were female."

The biggest age demographic of those entering treatment was between 25 and 34, followed by those between 35 and 44, according to county officials.

"While there are significant numbers in other age ranges, this age range, from 25 to 34, gives us a picture of who the most users are, and we could potentially target our efforts related to that population," Terry said.

County attorney

Ryan is the chief prosecutor for crimes occurring within the county.

"Oftentimes if we prosecute someone early on for a misdemeanor-level offense, if we can get them into treatment, particularly if they have an at-risk background ... we can get them into a treatment program and break that cycle (of addiction)," Ryan said.

There was a 52.7 percent increase in the number of people sentenced for felonies in the county from 2016 to 2017, according to Ryan.

"Of those people, we had approximately 13 percent ... who got probation. ... We would send them to (Central Minnesota Adult and) Teen Challenge or some other treatment program," Ryan told the board.

The county's drug court is a special court that handles cases involving non-violent drug-using offenders through "intensive judicial supervision, case management, treatment, chemical testing and graduated sanctions and incentives," according to the county's website.

"Crow Wing County has been very successful in our drug court program, creating a very, very strong sober community, to the point where Sen. (Amy) Klobuchar highlighted the Crow Wing County Drug Court program as a model that the rest of the nation could follow," Ryan said.

Drug courts share in principle an underlying premise that drug use is not simply a law enforcement or criminal justice problem, "but a public health problem with roots deep in society."

The team approach brings together judges, prosecutors, defense counsel, treatment professionals, probation officers, law enforcement, educational and vocational experts, and community members to require an offender to deal with his or her substance abuse problem.

"In the non-offender type of crime where you can be victimized, it has the biggest impact on victims of burglaries, particularly people who are later in life," Ryan said about crimes committed to fund a drug addiction. "When their house is burglarized, say for the first time, they feel almost as violated as one of the people that are sexually assaulted on a lower-level type criminal sex cases. ... All of the sudden when you don't feel you can go home and be safe in your home ... there's that impact as well."

Potential collaborative efforts, such as embedded social work positions in the jails and community health educator positions, were also discussed at the meeting. Crime and drug use are an intertwined societal problem, so social workers, for example, will help address it early.

"In 2018, the sheriff's office responded to 415 suicide-related calls, and there's a lot of intertwining between the suicide calls, mental health and chemical dependency," Terry said. "Statewide, there's been an uptick in suicide calls as well."

Suicide and opioid overdose deaths rose in the state in 2017, continuing a trend started in 2000 and reaching record levels, according to data released Monday by officials from the Minnesota Department of Health.

"Is Crow Wing County seeing what everyone else is? Yes. ... Every weekend, I'll come in Monday and look at it, and I'll guarantee there will be at least one call where someone called for help, someone called and reported, or there was a suicide," Goddard told commissioners.

Regarding social services chemical dependency cases in the county, and out of the 456 new and existing cases as of last month, 53 percent have an open probation case and 29 percent have open child support cases, according to county data.

There were about 450 child-protection cases in the county in 2017, which include out-of-home placement cases. About half of those were drug-related and a third of all the child-protection cases in the county were specifically meth-related, according to Terry.

"We spend a lot of money on out-of-home placements, as you guys know. We've seen a significant increase in the number of kids that we have to place, and a significant number of those kids placed are for drug use," Terry told the commissioners.

Out-of-home placements

Last year, the average number of children in out-of-home placement per month was about 180 — about 40 more than in 2011 — and the expenditures for out-of-home placement rose from about $2.5 million in 2014 to almost $5.5 million last year because of its correlation with meth use.

"Just to put that into some perspective, that's a $2.5 million increase over that five-year period. ... Every $350,000 is a percent increase in the levy," County Administrator Tim Houle said. "What I can tell you from my perspective is this is the No. 1 public health problem of our time. ... It has killed us financially, it wrecks families, it creates problems in our society at large. This is our No. 1 problem."

Combined efforts by the county to address drug issues include a streamlined adoption process, building awareness of services available among departments, improving communication among departments around families with children who may be exposed to drugs.

"If we did everything that got suggested here in one year, it might be too big of a pill for us to swallow, so we might be looking at 'What's our multi-year strategy here?'" Houle told the board.

"We're going to try and balance that out as best we can. I'm going to try and contain resources in some parts of county government, so that we can invest more here and still have a reasonable path forward for that tax sensitivity."

The county's record of a reduced tax levy for the last eight years ended when the board approved the 2019 budget and a levy increase of 6.99 percent at its Dec. 11 meeting.

"I don't want to work here when we bring in a 12 percent levy increase. ... We're all talking about how we can make this work with the competing priorities," Houle said. "But there's no question we have suffered the impact of our previous approach. We have--$2.5 million more in out-of-home placements. ... That's real money. And that's just the increase--not the total budget. ... So we're going to pay one way or we're going to pay the other."

The board of commissioners approved the 2019 preliminary budget and levy at its Sept. 25 meeting after Houle proposed the levy increase, noting the county would otherwise risk reductions in staff and services.

On top of the levy increase, the county is expected to spend about $3.06 million from its fund balance — akin to a savings account — for ongoing expenses.

"Well, it sounds like you're kind of getting ready to drop a big tax bomb on people ... like we're going to sell it to the people and say, 'If you pay more taxes, you're going to get a great return on your investment," Commissioner Paul Koering said to Houle at Tuesday's meeting.

"A lot of this stuff, I don't know how you can gauge the return on investment. I guess I don't see it, but then again, I'm just a farm boy, Don (Ryan), south of town."

Moving forward

Among the county's current efforts is the Comprehensive Re-entry Project, which provides a full continuum of care to individuals who have acute or chronic mental health, or chemical health problems and they are involved with law enforcement.

"We want to help folks get the right services at the right time to potentially keep them out of jail, but if they are in jail to get them out quicker for the services that they need," Terry said.

The project enhances the resources and tools available to law enforcement. It also integrates law enforcement, corrections, mental health services and the jails to address the criminalization of serious mental illness.

"Who is all is this going to affect — for us, for the employees of Crow Wing County? It truly is going to affect all of us because if we have more work, Don has more work, Kara has more work, probation has more work, everyone's going to have more work," Goddard said.

"We're recognizing that upfront, but we're also recognizing that we all are stakeholders, we are all are willing to work forward to the idea that the model that we've been doing ... hasn't been working."