Searching for solutions

Mary Zirkle, left, clinical director of Winchester Community Mental Health Center, listens to a presenter along with Paul Scardino, center, director of National Counseling Group in Winchester, and Pam Reiman, right, executive director of Bridging the Gaps Inc., during the Community Action Substance Abuse Summit held Tuesday at the Winchester Medical Center Conference Center. Rich Cooley/Daily

WINCHESTER — Drug addiction is everyone’s problem. That’s the conclusion community members stressed at Tuesday’s Community Action Substance Abuse Summit Call-to-Action event at Winchester Medical Center.

The summit brought together area health care providers and law enforcement with representatives from state and local government and child welfare, mental health and educational organizations to find a solution to what they’re calling a drug abuse epidemic.

The solution isn’t an easy one, said Judge Elizabeth Kellas of the 26th District Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court.

“We cannot incarcerate ourselves out of this problem,” she said.

Though drug abuse begins with drug users, it quickly grows to affect family members who love them, babies born with drugs in their systems, doctors and nurses who treat those children and foster families who care for them.

It affects older children living in homes broken from drug use, or with parents who spend would-be child support money on drugs. It affects taxpayers who fund jail cells for criminals in drug-related crimes.

Incarcerating and treating each drug addict in jail costs Virginia between $259 million and $1.3 billion a year, said Timothy Coyne, public defender in the Winchester Frederick County Circuit Court.

The objective of the summit was pulling together a community of individuals who can spread awareness about drug addiction, build political will for support systems, collaborate with those who can help, and take action toward a more community-minded solution.

Kellas recognized those invited to the summit as important players in the community.

In the Northern Shenandoah Valley, opiate overdose deaths have risen from two in 2011 to 28 so far this year, she said.

“This disease does not discriminate. It does impact us all,” she said.

More and more, within the last two years, the dramatic impact of heroin has affected every aspect of her docket. Custody cases that previously involved parents seeking care of a child now, every day, feature grandparents, aunts, uncles or friends pursuing custody of a child whose parents are addicted to drugs or incarcerated.

Since 2012, the number of Frederick County children in foster care has “skyrocketed” from 26 to 56, Kellas said. During that time, children in foster care as a result of parental drug use rose from 16 to 44 — a 64 percent increase.

In Winchester, foster care numbers rose from 22 to 47. Children entering the system from drug-related home situations increased by 76 percent.

Foster care due to drug addicted parents or caregivers costs Frederick County $15,962 per child and Winchester $12,113 per child.

Kellas has long been working to reduce the number of children in foster care. In 2012, she said, she helped reduce that number to five.

“And then heroin hit, and look what’s happened,” she said.

A solution will require a three-legged approach of law enforcement, treatment and prevention, according to Winchester Police Chief Kevin Sanzenbacher, but heroin is not the only problem.

“Heroin is just the drug du jour,” he said.

In a few years, another trend drug will take its place, so he said it’s important to treat drug addiction on the whole.

A website at http://www.roadtorecovery.info started two months ago offers a 24-hour support hotline and information on drug prevention, drug abuse warning signs, education, treatment and community resources.

Because prescription drugs also add to the problem of drug abuse, Valley Health has worked to provide lock boxes that aim to keep legal drugs out of the hands of children. Lock boxes are available at Valley Health pharmacies and through the Road to Recovery website. Valley Health has begun plans to partner with other area pharmacies to sell lock boxes.

Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com>