OPINION: Babies in Drug Court; Questions about Substance Abuse Education

Drug Court is a successful “jail diversion” program where suitable candidates commit to attending Drug Court proceedings, submitting to frequent drug screenings, meeting with parole officers, etc.  In the years it has operated in Saline County, it has had a very high (95+%) rate of preventing re-offenses.

A few years ago, I attended Drug Court.  Judge Jared Johnson donates his lunch hour; he masterfully checks on the weekly progress 30-40 clients.  I was not prepared to see a number of young children attending Drug Court.  If their mother didn’t have a sitter, they brought their kids.  Other Drug Court clients watched a woman’s child(ren) when she appeared before the judge.

It’s easy to ask a young child’s age.  I worked for the WIC Program, so I have a “mental gestational wheel” and can approximate when that child was conceived.  By listening to the proceedings, I had a sense of whether the woman used illegal substances during her pregnancy.

I frequently see pregnant women smoking tobacco, marijuana and bath salts.  A pregnant neighbor’s labor was induced; doctors found her baby’s “water” amounted to a teaspoon of amniotic fluid.  This lovely newborn spent a month in a Wichita ICU unit.  In two years, the neighbor was pregnant again . . . and continued to smoke—tobacco, marijuana and bath salts because her husband did.

My deepest frustration is that use of illicit substances during pregnancy “diminishes human potential”.  I want to scream my condemnation to the pregnant women when I see them smoking.  But, that won’t do the fetus or the woman any good.

That’s why I’m so focused on whether the Saline County Health Department, Salina Regional Health Center, and school districts are doing enough to educate the public about substance abuse.

When the roof collapsed at the then Salina-Saline County Health Department (in 2013), a number of tenured staff resigned when the then County Commission discussed providing minimal services.  For a year, the health department was without a health educator.  Jason Tiller was hired to be both the local and regional public health emergency preparedness coordinators and health educator.  Tiller soon took over the role of director.  A 2017 “hybrid” health educator / home health nurse position was unsuccessful.  Tiller said he is including a health education position in his 2020 budget request.

Prior to 2013, the then Salina-Saline County Health Department more equally partnered with the Salina Regional Health Center to complete a Center for Disease Control mandated Community Health Needs Assessment.  In 2012, with the health department in the lead, the CHNA focused on reducing smoking during pregnancy and reducing teen pregnancy.  But, the roof at the health department collapsed.  SRHC picked up the pieces; SRHC is mandated to do a CHNA every three years if they want the IRS to treat them as a non-profit agency.  In 2012 and 2015, SRHC made sizable donations to meet IRS requiements (like $1,000,000 given to the fieldhouse to address childhood obesity).  While the community is grateful, these donations aren’t addressing the most serious community health concerns, given recent CDC guidance.

I’ve been told “health curriculums” used at area schools marginally address substance abuse.  I’m told students learn about the chemical structure of the different substances, but there is very little focus on preventing ingestion.

I don’t believe enough local entities have done enough to provide substance abuse education.  Both Sheriff Roger Soldan and County Attorney Ellen Mitchell have said that substance abuse is behind many of the property crimes committed in Saline County.

Soon, County Commissioners will have a chance to step up their efforts to provide substance abuse education in the 2020 budget.  Having a full-time health educator would be a positive first step.

Opinion piece written by Karen Shade of Salina