An eastern North Carolina conference gathers agencies from multiple counties to collaborate on helping kids affected by the state’s opioid epidemic.
By Thomas Goldsmith
When parents are jailed or die in North Carolina as the result of illegal drug activity, county social service departments and child-advocacy agencies step in to make sure that any child left behind has a safe future.
With drug use at epidemic levels across the state, the crisis that can result for a family or child is just one of the topics on the agenda at a conference Monday in Goldsboro.
State Attorney General Roy Cooper, who will speak at the event, has been calling one focus for the conference – the rising use of opioid prescription drugs – a problem for the state and nation.
“We know that a prescription drug can be even more dangerous than a street drug and can be more highly addictive,” Cooper told a recent conference of state attorneys general, via remote video from Raleigh. “Most parents do not talk to their kids about the dangers of prescription drugs.”
Additional conference participants include the Goldsboro Police Department Narcotics Unit, Port Human Services, Eastpointe LME-MCO and the Guardian Ad Litem Program. These and other groups formed the Greene-Lenoir-Wayne Collaborative to address problems facing the counties, located roughly an hour east of Raleigh.
“The concern is the rise of the drug use in the local community,” said Andrea Boney, system of care specialist at the Eastpointe LME-MCO. “The departments of social service brought out how many displaced children there are because parents are dying in hotel rooms.”
(LME-MCOs, or local management entities/managed care organizations oversee tax-funded behavioral health care in regions across North Carolina.)
Children in these situations move into the care of the guardian ad litem system once the local social service department petitions a district court to find guardianship for them.
“It’s hard finding homes for these children,” Boney said. “Nobody wants to break sibling groups up. Because of all they’ve been through, they can be difficult. Some might have been born addicted to the drug.”[pullquote_left]511 percent: The increase in the rate of hospitalizations associated with drug withdrawal syndrome in North Carolina newborns per 100,000 live births, 2004-2012.
— N.C. State Center for Health Statistics[/pullquote_left]Sabastian Ratliff, guardian ad litem supervisor in Goldsboro, said the three-county collaborative came together to keep the community informed about the drug-use epidemic.
“They are trying to make sure that the children and families that we deal with don’t fall through the cracks,” Ratliff said.
The guardian ad litem program works with trained volunteers and court-appointed attorneys to determine the needs of abused and neglected children who are brought in the court system by a county Department of Social Services.
Small towns face epidemic
According to Cooper, 10 of the 13 highest-prescribing states for legal opioid drugs are in the South, and North Carolina is one of them.
According to data from the Department of Health and Human Services, there were upwards of 11,000 emergency room visits annually related to unintentional overdoses in North Carolina since 2007. In 2012, there were more than 12,000 hospitalizations.
Statewide, more than 1,000 people die annually from prescription drug overdoses. In 2014, the last year for completed statistics, that number was 1178.
In Greene, Wayne and Lenoir, the mostly rural counties involved in Monday’s conference, 338 people died from drug- or medication-related causes during a 15-year period ending in 2014, according to state health statistics.
“The drug epidemic in our community has really soared and it increases the number of cases that we continue to get through the Department of Social Services,” Ratliff said.
Studies of demographic trends in small counties reveal conditions that can make it difficult for authorities to fight drugs and preserve families. According to the federal Rural Health Information Hub, clients in rural communities may lack readily available behavioral health and detox services, face driving long distances for care, encounter insufficiently trained first responders and EMS staff, and have the privacy concerns associated with smaller communities.
According to 2016 figures, 36 percent of Wayne County children live in poverty, up from fewer than 30 percent in 2010 and about 20 percent in 2002. In comparison, 13 percent of children nationally live in poverty and 24 percent in North Carolina.
Nearly half, or 46 percent of children in Wayne, live in single-parent households, according to Robert Wood Johnson Foundation figures.
That means the absence of one parent is more likely to result in a child being placed in county custody. (By comparison, 28 percent of children live in single-parent households in Wake, ranked as North Carolina’s healthiest county.)
Ratliff, with the guardian ad litem program, said Monday’s collaboration is the counties’ first public event to address community concerns, but far from the last.
“This conference is just one of many future education opportunities that are going to come out of this,” he said.[box style=”2″]