Cecil County Drug Crisis: ‘Culture’ of Abuse Pervades County; Poverty, Lack of Treatment Cited in Study
A Cecil Times Special Report
Cecil County‚Äôs widespread drug abuse problems– linked to crime, child abuse, suicide and joblessness‚ÄĒwill need a broad-based solution to address a culture of drug abuse that often spans generations of families, according to a new consultant‚Äôs study. And the problem has reached crisis proportions, with the county having the highest rate of fatal drug overdoses in the state.
‚ÄúWhile Cecil County is an area of stark contrasts in income, limited local employment and a cycle of unemployment and poverty among young people are seen as leading to hopelessness and substance abuse in Cecil County,‚ÄĚ the report observed. And that cycle perpetuates itself, hampering local economic development efforts to bring new jobs to the area, because potential employers believe they cannot find an adequately trained, drug-free workforce in Cecil County.
But even for those who want to get ‚Äúclean,‚ÄĚ living in Cecil County puts many obstacles in their path, the study found. There is no residential detox or treatment center in the county; existing counseling and out-patient treatment services are fragmented; and there is a lack of appropriate services for people who have ‚Äúdual diagnoses‚ÄĚ of mental health and drug abuse problems. And the community at large is so drug-riddled that staying drug-free is particularly difficult here.
The six-month, $48,000 study by an outside consultant, Health Resources in Action (HRIA), was paid for by a combination of state grants and private foundation funds. An earlier preliminary version of the report was presented a month ago and the final 116-page report was issued by the county Health Department on Friday.
Gov. Martin O‚ÄôMalley is scheduled to discuss the report and meet with county elected officials, police, health, social services and community groups at a two-hour public meeting about drug problems in Cecil County on Friday 8/9/13, at 2:30 p.m. at the county administration building in Elkton. The county Health Department is co-coordinating the event and is inviting citizens to submit questions in advance and to sign up to attend the meeting, at http://cecilcounty.eventbrite.com/
The report includes anecdotal impressions and quotations from unidentified ‚Äústakeholders‚ÄĚ the researchers interviewed, such as local officials, police, treatment providers and patients. But the study also includes data analysis that paints a stark portrait of the extent of the drug problem in Cecil County.
On a per-capita basis, Cecil County has the highest death rates from drug overdoses in the state. (The county‚Äôs population was counted at about 101,000 people in the 2010 census.) The highest fatalities came among users of opiates and prescription drug abusers but the report noted there was a growing fear in the community of rising heroin usage.
Cecil County law enforcement officials have been saying for at least a year that they have seen rising heroin usage as prices of illicit prescription drugs such as Oxycodone and other pain killers have risen and supplies diminished, while heroin is relatively cheaper and easier to obtain.
From 2008-20011, drug overdose deaths in Cecil County rose by 208 percent, from 8.9 deaths per 100,000 residents to 27.5 deaths per 100,000 residents, the study reported. In fact, Cecil County‚Äôs overdose drug death rate surpassed Baltimore City‚Äôs rate in 2011. Most of the local deaths since 2008 were attributed to abuse of prescription opioids, but fatal overdoses from heroin and cocaine rose somewhat from 2010 to 2011.
Cecil County also has a high suicide rate, almost twice the statewide average: 16.9 per 100,000 local residents, in contrast with a statewide rate of 8.9 per 100,000 people, the report said.
The root causes of drug abuse in Cecil County were linked to a wide array of societal factors, such as poverty, lack of education and a culture of tolerance for drug abuse in many families in the county, factors described by some residents interviewed for the study as the ‚ÄúCeciltucky‚ÄĚ culture.
Poverty was cited as a factor, with ‚Äúpockets of affluence‚ÄĚ in some areas but an overall perception of the county as low-income and a generational culture that de-values education and achievement for children. One out of every two elementary school children enrolled in county public schools qualify for free or reduced-price meals at school, the study noted, and the rate of participation in such programs has doubled in the past decade.
The county also has ‚Äúa significant population with unstable housing, illustrated by numerous trailer parks, tent cities, homeless shelters and motels converted into residencies,‚ÄĚ the report said. The county Health Department estimates the county‚Äôs actual homeless population at 234 as of 4/13, but non-profit shelter providers have projected higher numbers and scores of ‚Äėinvisible‚Äô homeless people and families that move from relative to relative for temporary stays because they have no permanent residence of their own.
The report also analyzed Cecil County‚Äôs violent crime rate, finding it had jumped significantly from 2001-2010 while rates in nearby counties in the state had stabilized or declined. The county‚Äôs violent crime rate rose from 514.7 incidents per 100,000 population to 653.8 per 100,000 residents in that time frame.
Cecil County also had a rate of child abuse cases reported to social services agencies twice the state average– 10.5 cases per 1,000 children under age 18 in the county in contrast with 5 cases per 1,000 children statewide in Fiscal Year 2010.
The study also surveyed a variety of other issues, including calculations showing the county had a higher rate of births to teen mothers than the state average, but did not take into account other factors that might lead to such figures, such as a local culture that is more opposed to abortion to terminate unwanted teen pregnancies than in other parts of the state.
But the study did cite anecdotal reports of babies being born in the county with symptoms of exposure to their mother‚Äôs use of illegal drugs and the county schools report rising numbers of elementary school children exhibiting problems linked to neo-natal exposure to drugs.
The new consultant‚Äôs report found that among local residents, there were broad ‚Äúmisconceptions about the viability of methadone as a treatment option‚ÄĚ for drug abusers seeking to get clean. ‚ÄúCommunity members expressed negative feelings about these therapies,‚ÄĚ the report noted. And, in some of the more forcefully worded conclusions of the report, the consultants said: ‚ÄúGiven this perception, what might be needed is an effort to educate the public about the efficacy of these strategies to save lives and provide those addicted with a chance to live long enough to go into treatment and turn their lives around.‚ÄĚ
The study noted the recent county government zoning fight that sought to limit such treatment facilities, which the report said reflected ‚Äúa vocal group in the community who sees substance abuse as a personal choice and an issue of character‚ÄĚ and there was a misguided ‚Äústigma‚ÄĚ against local drug treatment facilities.
Complicating the county‚Äôs response to the drug problem and treatment options is an ordinance, adopted by the old ‚ÄúThree Amigos‚ÄĚ majority of the County Commissioners‚Äô board, that established retroactively special zoning rules and exceptions for all medical clinics as a way to try to limit the number of methadone treatment facilities in the area. A lawsuit against the ordinance and the county government is pending and was filed by operators of a proposed drug treatment clinic in Elkton.
Although the ordinance did not specify methadone or drug treatment clinics as its target, the Three Amigos, led by then Commissioner and now Councilor Diana Broomell (R-4), made it clear in debate on the issue that was their goal. The pending litigation charges that the commissioners were in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act by discriminating against medical services for drug treatment patients.
A byproduct of the ordinance has been at least two general medical offices getting ensnared in the new regulatory red tape: expansion of the strongly supported West Cecil Health Center that provides a wide range of medical services for lower income patients, and a proposed new two-doctor medical practice in leased space in an office and retail center, College Crossing, on Biggs Highway. Both eventually won zoning Board of Appeals approval, however.
At multiple points in the study, the report writers tended to equate alcohol and tobacco usage as ‚Äúdrug abuse‚ÄĚ behaviors, including a section claiming that there were ‚Äėgenerational‚Äô cultures of alcohol and smoking by parents that created a permissive environment for children to do the same. But the report said that children of drug abusers were the ‚Äúmost difficult to reach‚ÄĚ with an anti-abuse message and treatment.
A recurring theme throughout the report was the unique geography and lack of transportation in Cecil County. The lack of public transportation, the concentration in Elkton of what limited drug treatment services are available, the lack of positive recreation options for young people in the more rural areas of the county, all contribute to isolation and a climate that is ripe for kids to turn to drugs.
The report offered some broad recommendations, but clearly it will be up to local and state elected officials and treatment experts to tailor an appropriate response.
The report found that more money was needed for treatment services; steps needed to be taken to address a community ‚Äúculture‚ÄĚ of tolerance for drug usage; job training is needed to provide opportunities and hope for young people; improved transportation options should be explored; and there should be satellite treatment and youth services offered in multiple areas of the county, not just Elkton.
The report listed an alphabet-soup roster of various euphemistically named programs operated elsewhere that the consultants thought the county might try to reach youth with anti-drug messages and alternatives and to treat those seeking to get off drugs. (No doubt most of them would require large infusions of grant money to various consultants and profit or non-profit making entities that operate them.)
But the next step in the process of reviewing the report and the upcoming meeting with the governor is for Cecil County officials, local business and community leaders, medical professionals, educators and parents to demand changes.
Such as: more money from the state to address treatment and in-patient mental health/detox care for local residents; job training and youth recreation options; transportation needs; and perhaps, most importantly, an all-out push by community and religious leaders to change the debilitating ‚ÄúCeciltucky‚ÄĚ culture of Cecil County.
You can read the full consultant’s report here: