A 2010 report from the Sarasota County Department of Children and Families indicated that 64 percent of child removals cases involved prescription drug abuse. First Step, a local addictions receiving facility, added that the clinic has seen a 147 percent increase in patients admitted for prescription drugs from 2006 to 2009. Such staggering numbers have greatly affected a large portion of Sarasota County residents, resulting in family fragmentation and a significant rise in drug-dependent newborns.
A recent study shows the number of Sarasota County babies born drug-dependent or suffering from neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) — a group of problems that occur in a newborn exposed to addictive illegal or prescription drugs while in the mother’s womb — has increased by 87 percent since 2005.
P.J. Brooks, First Step Vice President of Outpatient Services, stated the problem of addiction has always been here. “We’re just seeing a change in the drug of choice, specifically oxycodone and hydrocodone. … The folks coming into the First Step program are younger now, 23 to 28-year-old synthetic opiate addicts,” Brooks explained. “Those are childbearing years. That’s the reason for the increase of NAS newborns.”
Child Welfare Systems Advocate Laura McIntyre said he feels that physicians’ prior lack of awareness regarding the consequences of prescription drug misuse may have fueled the statistical spike, while other experts suggest the economic downturn has led more people to seek a disconnection from the world — a common trigger of painkiller abuse.
McIntyre stated a child protection investigator is presently housed at Sarasota Memorial Hospital due to the high rate of substance-exposed newborns.
A recent NPR article reported that in the last five years, the number of Florida newborns being treated for NAS has tripled.
According to McIntyre, the short-term affects include severe tremors and muscle stiffness. “They are inconsolable and unable to self-regulate,” she explains. Since NAS is a recent phenomenon, many physicians are unable to determine the long-term effects.
In Sarasota County, a newborn with NAS typically remains in the hospital for two weeks to a month before being placed in a Children’s Medical Services (CMS) home. With a limited number of homes, Sarasota County is having trouble accommodating the high level of referrals. In many cases, relatives have had to step forward, forcing aunts, uncles, and grandparents to become the primary caregiver. State-dependent children of all ages have been affected by the problem.
McIntyre adds the state of Florida sets a one-year case plan goal for parents to obtain treatment and reunite with their families after their children have been removed. The problem is, addicted parents often take longer than a year to become drug-free. The end result: Many parents battling drug addiction have their parental rights terminated.
It appears that the drugs in question aren’t coming from the streets. To combat the issue, Sarasota County has taken a proactive approach to develop a Community Action Plan consisting of four components, including the installation of a Pain Management Clinic Ordinance. The ordinance enacts zoning and regulatory policies on all county pain management clinics and offers inspections and data on what takes place inside pain management offices.
Sarasota County Behavioral Health Planning Coordinator Brooke Baker states Sarasota has the strongest ordinance in Florida. “We developed it because of the data,” Baker stated. “We realized the medications were coming from pain management clinics or ‘pill mills.’”
Due to the ordinance, some of these clinics have been closed.
The plan also includes a doctor education program, teaching local medical professionals about prescription drug misuse. Presently, physicians at pain management clinics in Sarasota County must use the state Prescription Drug Monitoring Program (PDMP) known as E-FORCSE prior to prescribing any controlled substances to patients. Sarasota is the first county in Florida to make this mandatory.
Baker said other components of the plan encourage local businesses to participate in Drug Free Workplace programs. “We’ve also established an effective prescription drug take-back program,” she stated.
Permanent pharmaceutical disposal boxes for controlled medications have been placed at the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Offices and the North Port Police Department. Since 2009, Sarasota County has collected over 3,000 pounds of unused and expired medications.
Baker said she feels the approach has been successful because the community is working together. “Sarasota should be proud of the effort we are making to curb this issue,” she said.
Brooks agreed, adding his ultimate hope is that someday the world can shift its thinking about the medical model for treating addiction. He said he believes drug addicts need more than a 16-week program.
“Addiction requires the continuum of care and the length of care of care that any other long-term disease has,” he states. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could exercise for 30 days and be fit for the rest of our lives? Life doesn’t work like that. The same goes for beating addiction.”
For local treatment resources and for more information, please visit www.scgov.net/drugfreesarasota. If you are interested in being a Sarasota, Manatee or Desoto County foster parent, please phone 1-866-661-5656.