The financial impact of drug abuse in Highland County was brought home again Wednesday when Highland County Commissioners were presented with more facts related to the epidemic, both from the county coroner and the acting director of Job and Family Services.
After an increase in autopsies, including those related to a dramatic upswing in drug-related deaths, Highland County Coroner Jeff Beery is requesting an increase in funds for autopsies.
The funds would also allow for additional autopsies for suspected overdoses which could help prosecute drug dealers.
According to Beery, his budgeted funds for autopsies are nearly depleted this year. So far, there have been 27 cases, and 11 of those have been overdoses. In all of last year there were 41 cases, with 14 of those being overdoses.
Right now, Beery said his budget covers about 18 autopsies for the year. He said he only orders them when it is necessary. And typically in the cases of a suspected overdose, a specimen from the deceased’s body is all that is analyzed rather than an autopsy being conducted.
However, he said that Highland County Prosecutor Anneka Collins has expressed an interest in prosecuting those responsible for putting the deadly drugs in people’s hands in the first place. Collins said Wednesday that to be able to prosecute those who supplied the drugs, there has to be proof that a person died from the effects of the drug, which would require an autopsy to rule out other causes of death.
After Wednesday’s meeting, Beery said he was in agreement with Collins’ “desire to take a more aggressive stand” against the drug problem. He is requesting about $28,000 in funds for the remainder of the year, offering commissioners the option of going case by case if they wanted.
The coroner said autopsies are done in Montgomery County and that Highland County pays about $1,500 per autopsy there, which he said was about half the cost of other facilities.
Commission president Shane Wilkin said commissioners would review the matter and have an answer for Beery next week.
“This is just another example about how this problem is just beating on the budgets,” Wilkin said of addiction issues. “It’s a wide-ranging problem,” that affects everything, he said.
On a related matter, Job and Family Services (JFS) Acting Director Katie Adams provided an update on foster children in care.
Adams came to the agency in November of last year, and at that time there were 150 children in foster care, costing the county $6,740 per day. As of June, the cost is down to $5,297 per day, a 21-percent decrease, Adams said. Also as of this month, there are 98 children in foster care, and she said the agency hasn’t seen fewer than 100 children in foster care since October of 2013.
Adams said the agency has been working to reduce costs in a number of ways and is also working to get children into the care of a kinship provider, which is a person that already has a relationship with the child, such as a relative or a close family friend. She said that the agency is also returning children to their homes “in a more timely manner” once the parent(s) have completed their case plans through the agency. There have also been several adoptions, she said.
Adams attributed the number of children in foster care almost completely to family addiction issues. She said of the 113 children removed from their homes last year, 80 percent of those cases were due to initial reports of drug use in the home. And of the 150 adults associated with current cases, most of them have “involvement or addiction” with drugs, she said.
The agency has done outreach and worked to bring awareness to the issue, and she said JFS has seen an increase in the number of people calling to inquire about becoming foster parents.
Right now there are 11 licensed foster homes in the county, with two more awaiting their license and another two in the earlier stages of becoming licensed, she said.
And amid the current addiction epidemic, Adams said she does not foresee the numbers dropping any more significantly than what they have in recent months. But she said the agency would continue to “work diligently” on the issue.
The county’s current levy brings in about $520,000 annually, and according to Wilkin was designed to handle about 60 children fostered in Highland County. The projected total cost for children in foster care this year is $1.9 million.
Without enough foster homes and more children in foster care, the children must be placed outside the county in network foster homes and in residential facilities, which costs the county significantly more money than being able to keep the children locally.
Last year, the numbers of children in foster care and their frequent placement outside the county contributed to costing the county an additional nearly $1 million.
Adams on Wednesday said that an additional levy might be necessary to cover the costs of caring for the children in foster care.
Reach Angela Shepherd at 937-393-3456, ext. 1681, or on Twitter @wordyshepherd.