Top stories of 2015: #8 — Juvenile and drug cases flood an overwhelmed justice system
Gov. Peter Shumlin shined a bright spotlight on the drug addiction problem in January of 2014 and, with a lot of help from many other advocates for those addicts, began to mobilize Vermonters to help solve the problem. But in 2015 it was clear that the opiate crisis is still ongoing. Drug addiction is still messing up previously promising young lives, causing heartache and fear in many, many Vermont families, and mounting untold costs to the economy.
The amount of disruption that drugs is causing was particularly clear to those who come in contact with the courts.
Members of the Addison County judiciary last spring were warning that a dramatic surge in the number of juvenile cases is stretching court staff to the limit and in some cases deferring the legal process for adult defendants whose cases must, by state law, take a backseat to justice for young victims and defendants. Local judges, prosecutors, attorneys and child advocates agree the surge in cases — involving neglected, abused and delinquent children, as well as those who court officials deem necessary to remove from their homes — can at least in part be attributed to the growing opiate addiction problem in the state.
Addison County Deputy State’s Attorney Chris Perkett explained that cases of child neglect are the primary reason that courts are becoming overloaded. Neglect, Perkett said, can come in the form of a drug-addicted parent who leaves his or her child at home to go out and meet with a dealer, and get high. It can be parents who drive under the influence of drugs with their children in the vehicle. Or it can be parents who have sub-standard housing (such as no heat during the winter) and are unwilling to accept resources to fix the problem.
Ten years ago, the Addison County Courthouse reserved one morning per week for juvenile cases. Now it is not uncommon for more than double that amount. What that means is that prosecutors have less time to work on adult criminal cases, which slows down the process for those defendants.
In Middlebury the Department for Children and Families saw calls about child neglect rise from 607 in 2012 to 761 in 2014. The local DCF director attributed the surge in cases, in part, to the growing opiate addiction problem in the Green Mountain State.
There were efforts to stem this scourge in 2015.
Bristol’s Bob Donnis and other members of the Addison County Opiate Treatment Committee last summer launched a new website to give people the information they need to steer away from drug abuse, or get help if they are already in the throes of addiction. The site — www.addictionhelpvt.com — is a clearinghouse of information for those seeking information on drug education and prevention, treatment and long-term recovery.
Its content includes information and input from the Vermont Department of Health, Counseling Service of Addison County, Turning Point Center of Addison County, area physicians and other entities that assist people struggling with opiate addiction. The United Way of Addison County took a lead role in organizing the Addison County Opiate Treatment Committee.
And late in the year Middlebury police and some local human services organizations were teaming up on a new program through which drug addicts are invited to voluntarily turn in their drugs without fear of facing criminal charges, providing they agree to be steered toward recovery programs and services.
It is an offering that is being patterned after the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative (PAARI) established earlier this year in Gloucester, Mass. It is now being replicated in 34 communities in 10 states throughout the country. Middlebury is the first community in Vermont to offer this kind of amnesty program.
Middlebury police’s adoption of the program comes on the heels of its decision this past summer to install a drug disposal bin within its headquarters off Seymour Street. People can drop their unused prescription medications and other drugs into the bin, no questions asked, around the clock. By November, the bin had been emptied several times.
“We look at (drug) addiction the same way people are addicted to tobacco, to alcohol or whatever it happens to be,” said Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley. “We need to deal with it as a health issue and not so much as a criminal issue.
“If someone is in crisis and comes to us for help, we are going to help them,” Hanley added. “No longer will it be, ‘Let someone else deal with it.’”