January 31, 2015

Medina
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Heroin epidemic hitting Medina County families

Mead Wilkins, director of Job and Family Services of Medina County, updated county commissioners Tuesday on how the rise of heroin use in the county is effecting young children and families. KATIE ANDERSON / GAZETTE

Mead Wilkins, director of Job and Family Services of Medina County, updated county commissioners Tuesday on how the rise of heroin use in the county is effecting young children and families. (KATIE ANDERSON / GAZETTE)

Heroin use across Medina County continues to rise among families with young children.

In his monthly report to the county commissioners, Job and Family Services Director Mead Wilkins said 70 percent of the families served through child welfare have a dependence on heroin or a prescription drug such as OxyContin.

“That was not true two years ago,” he said. “Most of the cases involve young females of a child-bearing age.”

Wilkins said many young mothers in the county become addicted to painkillers and turn to heroin because it’s inexpensive and not difficult to obtain in Northeastern Ohio.

“If you can’t get your OxyContin today, you can get your heroin tomorrow,” he said.

Since 2012, the number of in-home investigations for child welfare cases in the county has increased by about 25 percent from 400 to more than 500, Wilkins said.

This year, the department has gone to court to seek custody of more children by mid-August than all of last year — and the busiest time of year is yet to come.

“We’re saying that if you want to use heroin, that’s fine with me, you’re just not going to have your kids,” Wilkins said.

Wilkins said the department tends to receive more calls for investigations from elementary schools and teachers once children go back to school.

“It seems like that’s all we do,” he said. “We’re overwhelmed with children from families with opioid addictions.

There’s no end in sight. The number of cases keeps growing and I don’t know when it’s going to level off.”

Job and Family Services has 12 months to come up with a permanent living solution for children who are removed from heroin-affected homes. Most of them end up being raised by their grandparents, aunts and uncles or other family members who don’t get much financial help from the state to raise them, Wilkins said.

Children without family members to take them in most often go into a foster care program with the hope of them being adopted.

He said occasionally children are returned to the parent or parents under court-ordered drug-free conditions.

Wilkins said the rise in heroin-related child welfare cases began in 2012 with a crackdown on prescription drug abuse in the county.

“After the pill mills closed, heroin suppliers just stepped up,” Wilkins said.

Many drug abusers turned to heroin to support their opioid addictions, said Sheriff Tom Miller.

He said as of Thursday morning, 11 of the 217 people in Medina County Jail were there on charges related to heroin. Miller said he suspects about half of the jail population has a background with heroin abuse.

“Heroin has become a drug of choice,” he said. “It straddles all classes of society.”

Miller said over the past few years, there have been 18 to 20 opiate deaths per year in the county.

“It might be pacing larger than that now,” he said.

According to Wilkins, part of the problem is that heroin has a 90 percent relapse rate. “People who get addicted have a really hard time getting off of it,” he said.

Wilkins said that in some cases, young mothers’ addictions have led to human trafficking and trading sex for the drug.

“Dealers tend to not give these moms the drugs for free and, eventually, the money runs out,” he said. “Many of them will do anything to get their hands on it, and one of the unintended consequences is more babies. The moms are young and the kids are young. This drug is hitting a very vulnerable segment of the population.”

Medina Police Chief Patrick Berarducci said the ruined families and traumatic changes in these children’s lives are “the real cost of the heroin epidemic.”

“Think about what kind of future the child of a heroin addict has,” he said. “For law enforcement, we get to make the arrests and go home at the end of the day, but Job and Family Services has to deal with it day in and day out.”

Berarducci said one of the battles the police department is facing is identifying the source of heroin in each case.

“We’re treating every heroin overdose as a homicide investigation,” he said. “We’ll treat it as if someone shot the user, and go after the distributor. We felt like we were losing valuable opportunities to impact these people and the problem at large if we didn’t treat it this way.”

Berarducci said heroin addicts infect others in their social circle, which results in more addicts.

He said a shortage of jail space compounds the problem because people are receiving lower bonds and getting out of jail sooner.

“They go right back to dealing again because they need the money for their attorney fees,” he said. “We’re catching the right people; we’re just catching them over and over again.”

Berarducci said he doesn’t see the “political will” to end the heroin epidemic in the area.

“It’s not about rehabilitation. It’s about isolating them from a vulnerable community,” he said. “Until more jail space is made available, we’re just kidding ourselves.”

Medina County Common Pleas Judge James L. Kimbler has proposed to open up the east pod of the Medina County Jail as a short-term rehab facility for inmates with opioid and heroin addictions.

In April, Kimbler asked for about $450,000 to get the program running, but the county commissioners said there was no money in this year’s budget for the project.

Sheriff Miller said that while there often isn’t enough jail space, opening the pod wouldn’t necessarily impact the problem Job and Family Services is facing.

He said the pod would be used only for male inmates and wouldn’t be available for the young mothers Wilkins said need help.

Miller said the county already spends $260,000 per year on mental health and drug-related treatment services for inmates through the local agency Alternative Paths Inc.

He said the jail also has a GED program to provide inmates with a high school equivalency diploma and make them more employable.

Miller said that training local police forces to use Narcan, a drug that aids in the reversal of heroin overdose, also has contributed to fighting fatal consequences of heroin.

But what Miller said the county really needs in the fight against heroin is sober-living facilities.

“We really need places for people to stay sober,” he said. “If they leave jail and go back to their environment full of users, it’s going to be difficult to stay sober.”

Miller said that although the county has a variety of treatment facilities, including rehab centers, halfway houses and outpatient treatment programs, the county needs housing facilities where recovering heroin addicts can be monitored while living sober and independently.

“It’s hard to beat heroin. It’s hard to get through to these people, but as a society, we have a collective obligation to try to do that,” Miller said. “We should be looking into additional treatments and treatment facilities, and it should be a joint effort among school systems, law enforcement and social services.”

Contact reporter Katie Anderson at (330) 721-4012 or kanderson@medina-gazette.com.