On Thursday, May 23 members of the community including law enforcement, first responders, health-care providers, concerned citizens, county employees and others came together at Fergus Falls City Hall to meet with representatives of Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s office to discuss the opioid epidemic and its impact on the area.
The discussion began with a welcome from Fergus Falls Mayor Ben Schierer, followed by some short remarks by Klobuchar’s outreach director, Sarah Franz. “This is very helpful for our office, to hear from different communities about your approach to substance abuse, opioids, meth and alcohol,” Franz said. “Each community, as we drive around the state, has a different approach and it’s great to see where communities could use help, where they’re thriving, what ideas are applicable to other communities and what we can take back to Washington.”
Franz’s comments were followed by a video from Klobuchar outlining why addiction issues are important to her, what bills she’s put forth to combat the opioid epidemic and her interest in hearing the community’s thoughts on what’s going well and what could be improved. “Four out of five new heroin users report misusing prescription opioids before going to heroin,” Klobuchar explained. “The very pills that are supposed to ease a person’s pain can end up taking their life.”
Numbers from the Drug and Alcohol Abuse Normative Evaluation System (DAANES), which collects information from treatment facilities around Otter Tail County, shows that heroin as the primary substance of abuse among patients has increased from 4.5% in 2016 to 8.8% in 2018.
However, Deb Sjostrom, director of Human Services for Otter Tail County, says the county’s biggest concern is meth: Meth as the primary substance of abuse has increased from 28% in 2016 to 36.8% in 2018. That’s higher than the percentage of patients reporting alcohol as their primary substance of abuse, 35.6%, and which has been seeing a downward trend over the last few years (44.2% in 2016 and 37.5% in 2017).
“Meth is king,” agrees detective Sgt. Andy Miller of the Fergus Falls Police Department. Bill Adams from the county sheriff’s office says, that while they might be seeing more cases of opiate use, “We’re seeing meth every night.” Otter Tail County is 12th in the state for positive meth tests so far in 2019 and Adams believes that’s probably going to go up.
The greatest consensus among everyone present at the roundtable was that Otter Tail County needs detox centers and local treatment centers. The state of Minnesota only has 17 or 18 detox centers total, as Miller says, “I think our yards have become our detoxes, and our jails; I don’t think that’s right.”
Using jail as a detox center was a serious concern for one resident present at the roundtable. Her son, who is part of the suboxone treatment program at Lake Region Healthcare, loses access to his suboxone in jail. As a result, any addict on the road to recovery that gets sent to jail loses all access to their addiction-management medications and medical support systems for the duration of their incarceration and are subsequently returned to the community back at square one. “The jail is bound by laws and regulations about what medications can be given and when,” explained Adams, though he could not go into more detail about suboxone specifically.
Furthermore, once an addict is out of jail, in addition to not having access to treatment centers since there aren’t any locally, law enforcement is too understaffed and overburdened to provide adequate supervision for addicts Detective Lucas Delaney, narcotics officer for the Fergus Falls Police Department, explained, “You hope once a criminal conviction occurs, you’re expecting or hoping for supervision, and this is not the fault of the Department of Corrections, but there is just not enough people to adequately supervise everyone once a conviction occurs. I talked to an agent with the DOC recently who has several hundred clients that they’re supervising.”
There also isn’t a system to help addicts before law enforcement gets involved. When someone gets picked up multiple times for drug overdoses by an ambulance, there’s no system in place for first responders to flag them as needing support or assistance for drug treatment or addiction services. “If it’s the second or third time we pick somebody up for [an overdose], we’re often filling out a vulnerable adult concept for those folks, but that’s pretty much the only reporting system we have in place,” said Cameron Dean, clinical manager for Ringdahl EMS, the ambulance service provider for western Otter Tail County.
Local treatment centers wouldn’t only be helping addicts recover, they’d also be helping repair broken families, bringing parents and children back together.
“Over 80% of families that utilize our services at the Parenting Time Center, the reason why is either neglect or there was drug use in the home,” said Emilyn Haugen, director of Someplace Safe Parenting Time Centers.
Data from DAANES also shows increased involvement of child protection services in substance abuse cases, from 12.6% involvement in 2016 to 14.4% in 2018.
Representatives from Lakeland Mental Health Center, county law enforcement and county human services all expressed concerns about the opioid epidemic’s effect on children and families.
The epidemic is a complicated problem, a maze of issues and concerns that are interconnected, with no single solution. However, it was made clear that rural Minnesota has a lot of work to do to address that long list of problems, as safety nets meant to catch addicts before problems go too far aren’t available or are nonexistent.