By Brett Larson, January 5, 2015
Last month’s Inaajimowin addressed the problem of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) — the medical term for babies who are born addicted to drugs. This article will address the problem from a law enforcement perspective, including the impact on individuals, families, and the community at large. Next month’s Inaajimowin will look at the prescription drug problem from a cultural perspective.
The illegal use of opiates – prescription as well as street drugs – is a serious health problem in the Mille Lacs Band community, but it is also a public safety problem.
The medical, legal, and law enforcement costs are high, but the greatest price is paid by the innocent children born dependent, and the families torn apart by chemical dependency.
According to Tribal Police Chief Jared Rosati, as the methamphetamine epidemic began to fade, prescription drug abuse took its place. Now illegal use of prescription drugs is declining, but an even more dangerous substitute is filling the void: heroin.
“We’ve solved one problem but gained another,” Jared said. “People haven’t stopped abusing; they just went from a legal source to an illegal source.”
As prescription drug abuse skyrocketed, government and the medical community responded by making it harder for addicts to go from clinic to clinic for 90-day refills. Once they became addicted, though, they began turning to heroin. It is now cheaper than marijuana, according to Jared, but extremely dangerous.
“This is not the heroin of the 1960s and ‘70s,” Jared said. “That was 5 to 15 percent pure. This is 90 percent pure.” As a result, overdoses are increasingly common because users don’t realize how strong the drug can be.
“This is not just a reservation problem,” Jared said. “Heroin seizures are up 236 percent statewide.”
To Jared, it’s worse than the meth epidemic because that was a matter of shutting down a few labs run by individuals. The heroin trade is being run by international cartels. “These people are organized,” he said. “It’s big business.”
Jared is attacking the problem of illegal drugs and other crime in the reservation community from several angles:
A grant to coordinate efforts among five different tribal police forces: “Local gang members are not exclusive to this reservation,” Jared said. “They go from reservation to reservation. The grant will allow departments to share information and resources to improve investigations.”
Knock and talk: When a tip from the community comes in that suspicious activity is happening at a house, some departments will sit back and watch. Jared’s approach is to go directly to the house, knock on the door, and tell them about the complaint, and that they are paying attention.
New training for K-9 Karma: The department’s new dog will go through narcotics training, making her a valuable asset in the fight against illegal drugs.
A “kids and cops” house: Jared would like to use a vacant house or other building as a place for kids to hang out with off-duty police officers. He said kids between the ages of 13 and 17 are under great pressure from gangs, and many give in. “We need them to start seeing us as people, as a friend, someone they can talk to, so we don’t lose them,” Jared said. “I’m not saying we can save every kid, but if we save five kids, it’s money well spent.”
Civilian police academy: Elected officials, commissioners, and others will have the opportunity to learn about procedures, laws, training, and defensive tactics so they have a better understanding of what police actually do.
What the efforts have in common is the attempt to increase trust between police and the community. “We need to do a better job of community policing,” he said. “This isn’t us vs. them. This is everyone’s problem. We as the police department are a big part of this puzzle. We’re a big part of the solution.”
The other part of the legal puzzle related to opiates involves lawyers and courts — who not only deal with drug dealers, but also family members accused of endangering their children, sometimes when they’re still in the womb.
Barbara Cole, senior deputy Solicitor General for the Mille Lacs Band, has worked on cases involving babies born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome. She said she has seen a dramatic increase in this type of case over the last few years.
Barbara believes that in many cases, the mother starts out with a legitimate medical concern and prescription, and from there gets addicted and may switch to other opiates like heroin. “It doesn’t always stem from being a partier and wanting to engage in destructive behavior,” she said.
When a newborn tests positive for drugs, medical personnel are required by law to report it to social services. For non-Band members, the report is made to the county where the infant was born. Social services then contacts the county attorney’s office, which files a petition with the state district court alleging that the baby is in need of protective services.
If the infant is a Band member, the report is usually made to the Band’s family services department, which notifies the Officer of the Solicitor General (OSG). In those cases, the OSG files the petition in Tribal Court.
A hold may or may not be placed on the baby while a petition is drafted. According to Cole, the facts of the case are usually clear because the hospital has evidence of the drugs in the baby’s system.
A hearing before a judge is held within a day or two. The county or tribal attorney will lay out the allegations, and the court usually finds that it’s reasonable to believe that out-of-home placement is necessary for the child’s safety and well being.
In some cases, the mother could argue that the children should go home, but because of the clear evidence that the mother was using drugs, it rarely happens. In those cases where it does, Barbara said, the judge wants to see that the mother is working with family services and getting a chemical dependency “Rule 25” assessment.
Barbara said, “When parents cooperate right away, it seems to go a lot better and they get their kids back faster.”
In many cases, if the mother has other children in addition to the newborn, those children may also be placed out of the home. Barbara said that in accordance with Band statutes, the Band always attempts to place children with family members first, then other Band members or Indian families, and finally any safe family-like environment.
If the children are removed from the home, there will be a 30-day hearing for the judge to determine whether continuing court intervention is necessary or if the issues have been resolved and the children can go back to the parents. In many cases, the children will return to the home, but the court will stay involved.
If the issues have not been resolved, a trial must be held within 90 days, according to Band statute. In the meantime, social workers will keep working with the family to follow their case plan.
If the family continues to need court intervention, review hearings will continue to be held about every three months.
If the parents fail to make progress, the court and family services will look at permanent options for the child or children.
“The goal is always to reunify the families,” Barbara said, “We want to get the parents the help they need and reunite the family. Sometimes it happens; sometimes it doesn’t.”