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The high costs of crack and meth: County pays hundreds of thousands, but social cost is also high in broken families

By now, it should come as a surprise to no one that roughly two-thirds of all inmates who are incarcerated at the Becker County Jail are there because of drug and alcohol use.

In a six-month study just completed by the Becker County Sheriff's Department, it was determined that 60-65 percent of the 544 inmates at the jail during that period "were there because of drug and alcohol abuse," said Sheriff Tim Gordon in a Friday interview.

"There is a direct correlation between drug and alcohol use and incarceration," Gordon added.

In the same study, it was determined that 34 percent of the jail population suffered from some type of mental health issues such as depression (12 percent), anxiety (6 percent), psychosis (5 percent), ADHD (3 percent) and other disorders (8 percent).

For those who are methamphetamine users, there are also a high number of dental visits.

"Methamphetamine attacks the protein-making abilities of the human body," Gordon noted.

During the six months of the study, Becker County spent nearly $65,900 on medical bills, prescriptions and nursing costs for jail inmates.

"It's mandated by the state that we are responsible for inmates' health care while they are incarcerated," Gordon said.

Some typical effects of long-term meth use include hair loss and dental or oral problems, often requiring oral surgery -- "and as anybody knows, that's not cheap," he added.

Some of these oral problems, such as an abscess, can even be deadly, Gordon continued.

"We've had two inmates who needed emergency surgery (over the last six months)," he said.

These oral problems, commonly referred to as "meth mouth," are well documented among adult drug users.

But what many people are not aware of is that these problems are now showing up among the children of habitual drug users as well.

"It's the worst kind of second hand smoke," said Donna Richgels, a social worker with the Becker County Human Services Department. "It's caused seizures, speech and language delays, and other developmental delays as well as rotting teeth and other signs of chronic neglect."

In many ways, some of the symptoms are similar to children who have been exposed to alcohol in the womb, Richgels noted.

"We discovered almost accidentally that when parents smoke meth or crack cocaine in front of children, they're (the children) also getting high and becoming addicted -- and experiencing the physical consequences," she said, adding, "We have a problem with crack cocaine too. It's not just meth."

The combination of exposure to the toxic chemicals released into the air from smoking these drugs, and poor nutrition due to neglect and other causes, have caused some children's teeth to begin literally rotting away, Richgels said.

So how was this problem discovered? Through a relatively new, "cutting edge" procedure known as hair follicle testing.

"We do hair follicle testing on kids between ages 0-6, if their parents are alleged to have been smoking crack cocaine or meth in their presence," said Richgels.

Through testing hair samples taken by community health nurses -- who have been trained in the proper procedure for taking and preparing samples -- it can be determined just how severe the level of exposure has been, as well as how long it's been going on. Each of these tests costs about $1,500, according to Human Services Director Nancy Nelson.

Recent statistics released by Becker County Human Services have shown that 42.4 percent of all families undergoing child protection case management have at least one chemically dependent person in the immediate family -- and Richgels said that's a conservative estimate.

Two child protection case workers, Amy Hanson and Jenny Anderson, both confirmed Richgels' assessment, noting that there are chemical dependency issues involved with roughly two-thirds of their active caseload.

According to Nelson, Becker County is expected to spend roughly $2.65 million on out-of-home placement of children by the end of 2007.

Out of 113 children in placement, there are 84, or about 74 percent, who come from families with chemical dependency, according to Richgels. Fifty of those 113 children come from families with at least one member who has a dependency on meth or crack cocaine, while the remaining 35 percent come from families where someone in the family has a dependency on alcohol.

In addition, about 45 of those 50 children are age 10 and under, Richgels noted.

"Our system is very stressed right now -- our caseloads are out of control," she said. "(Meth and crack use) has definitely driven an increase in out of home placements."

But there is an up side, she continued.

"Because meth and crack are addictions that take over people's lives so quickly, we're often getting to these kids at a younger age," said Richgels. "By providing for their safety when they're younger, we help get their health needs taken care of at an age where they are better able to catch up developmentally.

"We're giving kids a chance to grow up to be happy, productive, healthy adults."

And while the focus of Becker County's social workers is primarily on keeping the children safe, they are also able to help the parents, Richgels added.

"We're helping a lot of parents find sobriety also -- to get healthy and strong and at a place in their lives where they feel really good about how they're taking care of their kids," she said.

"Intervention can make a huge difference, not just for the kids, but for the parents too."

But when that doesn't happen -- "these are really tough addictions... many parents never make it to sobriety," Richgels said -- it is the county's priority to find permanent, stable homes for the children.

"Some find the support they need on their own, but for most -- they need adult intervention," she continued. "They can't protect themselves or keep themselves safe.

"In Becker County, we are very fortunate -- the extended families have really stepped forward," said Richgels. "Of the children leaving foster care who aren't reunified with their parents, we have the highest percentage of all the counties in the state who go to live with a relative permanently."

Human services has also begun working with the county jail to provide chemical dependency counseling for inmates while they are still incarcerated, to increase their odds of remaining sober when they leave jail.

Sheriff Gordon said he is excited by the initial success of Recovery Works and other faith-based programs, and hopes that success will eventually lead to a significant reduction in repeat offenders.

"It's not going to be overnight, but I feel we can be very satisfied that there's a strong likelihood we won't see a lot of repeat offenders from the people who have gone through this program successfully," Gordon said.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454