Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key, wants to determine where federal funds would be best allocated among local agencies dealing with the latest spike in heroin overdoses and struggling with the growing number of children being removed from their homes as a result.
On Saturday, President Barrack Obama signed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act into law authorizing $181 million to to increase availability of naloxone for treatment of incarcerated addicts and prescription drug monitoring programs. The law, co-sponsored by Buchanan, includes provisions to make immediate funding available.
In a letter sent to national drug control policy Director Michael Botticelli and Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell Monday morning, Buchanan called for immediate assistance to Manatee County, which is in the midst of another surge of heroin-related overdoses.
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“I want to make sure we are getting the right amount in the right place. I can’t work in the dark,” Buchanan told local officials Tuesday at the Safe Children Coalition roundtable meeting. “Where can we get the biggest bang for the buck? To me, prevention and education is critical.”
Buchanan asked attendees to submit their top three suggestions to assist him in securing needed funds.
In the first six months of the year, 213 children were removed from their homes by the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office Child Protective Investigative Division.
In 2015, the sheriff’s office removed a record 652 children, and in 2014, it removed 387 children when heroin overdoses first put Manatee County at epicenter of the epidemic in Florida.
“We have had four parents die from heroin overdoses in last three weeks,” said Brena Slater, vice president of Sarasota YMCA’s Safe Children Coalition. “We have actually had kids who have had both parents die from heroin overdoses.”
Of all the child protection investigations handled in the 12th Judicial Circuit, which includes Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties, 46 percent involved allegations of substance misuse listed as a maltreatment, Slater said, citing data the Florida Center Child Welfare.
I want to make we are getting the right amount in the right place. I can't work in the dark.
U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan
In October, Manatee County hit an all-time high with 74 children removed from their homes, she said. The 12th Judicial Circuit removed 109 in October alone.
“That’s more than Miami-Dade,” Slater said. “At one point, we were removing as much as Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco (counties) and we are a third their size.”
Buchanan questioned why Manatee County became the epicenter of this crisis with the number of heroin overdose deaths exponentially higher than anywhere else in the state.
“I know they have been working very hard to get the source,” sheriff’s office Capt. Kathryn Estabrook said, adding she could not speak on behalf of counterparts who handle narcotic investigations.
Deputy Director Robert Wilson with CPID said one of the biggest challenges faced in the field is dealing with families with dysfunctional support systems even when youngsters are removed.
“But we haven’t fixed the problem,” Wilson said. “We do not have a substance abuse program in this county that goes into the home.”
For many families, transportation is another big challenge, he said.
Recovering addict Amber Westra, 29, shared how her son, Hunter, was taken from her when born dependent on opioids, and how she worked through the Early Childhood court program in Sarasota, also known as Baby Court, to be reunified.
Buchanan was curious about what began her pill addiction.
“As any mother knows, that has had their child separated from birth, it is your heart that left that day and a part of you died,” Westra said, reading from a prepared statement.
When Westra was told Hunter would not be going home with her, she said she was referred to the Safe Children’s Coalition and given a case-management plan, she said.
In the months that followed, she and her husband went through substance-abuse classes, and child mental health and parenting classes.
Their son was hospitalized for about a month as he went through drug withdrawal, then was sent to one medical foster home after another. He now wakes up every day in his parents’ home.