Over the past year, Dawson County Family Connection has been gathering members from different agencies in the community to tackle the growing issue that is substance abuse within Dawson County.
In January 2017, Family Connection Coordinator Nancy Stites along with her team sat down to assess issues in the community and noticed that many issues such as child and spousal abuse stem from adult substance abuse, and that it was time that a conversation on substance abuse be opened to community members.
“We said the very first thing we need to do is increase awareness in the community - that this is happening,” Stites said. “We’re trying to just get people talking because a lot of people in this group that we’re talking about says ‘some people have no idea there’s a problem at all in the community.’”
Community agencies including accountability courts, local counselors, law enforcement, the chamber of commerce and the school system have been gathering together throughout 2018 to discuss substance abuse within the county and what can be done to address and stop the growing problem.
Since 1999, there have been 52 drug overdoses in Dawson County with substantial increases in overdose deaths beginning in 2006.
In 2017, the county saw six confirmed deaths by overdose according to the Dawson County Sheriff’s Office.
Arrests for substance related charges continue to rise. In 2015 the DCSO had 86 arrests for possession of a controlled substance and 97 arrests in 2016. In 2017, 72 arrests were made for possession of methamphetamine alone and 65 arrests for possession of marijuana.
According to Sheriff Jeff Johnson, the amount of arrests in 2018 already shows an increase in illegal drug activity.
From January to June, the DCSO has already made 124 drug arrests: 67 for possession of meth; 40 for possession of marijuana; 12 for prescription medications; and five for possession of cocaine.
“We are definitely on track to exceed drug arrests from prior years,” Johnson said.
The east side of the county, where Dawson County is seeing the most growth, is where Johnson said his office is seeing the most drug related activities.
“Drugs are typically the catalyst for most other crimes whether it be burglary or robbery, theft. Typically it’s somehow connected to drug use or abuse,” Johnson said.
It’s a community issue that affects more than just those arrested, as Scott Wilbanks, the local director of the Family and Children Services, explained.
Currently, Dawson County DFCS has 43 children in either temporary or permanent custody of the state. Of those, 60 percent are in care due to substance abuse by their parents or legal guardians.
“The truth is it’s probably closer to 80 percent,” Wilbanks said. “What happens sometimes is a report will come in because of family violence so we get involved and a kid might come out of the home because it’s unsafe for them to be there - maybe both parents got arrested so that’s the way the report gets coded. When we look further into working with the family there is an underlying substance abuse and there’s drugs or alcohol issue in the family so that doesn’t always get coded in the system.”
The removal rate of children from their caretaker due to drugs in Dawson County is significantly higher than the state average of 42 percent.
“I’ve been with DCFS for 12 years. I’ve been in Dawson County for the past three and in the past three years the number of reports have increased significantly,” Wilbanks said. “The number of children in care has increased … it’s basically tripled.”
In cases where children are removed from their homes, it is a traumatic experience during a critical developmental stage in their lives and they have a higher likelihood not to complete high school, to become homeless, to obtain a criminal record and to revert to patterns they saw growing up, Wilbanks said.
Treatment Court Coordinator Suzanne Stanley also expressed concern of substance abuse increase in the county as more and more young people are being referred to the accountability courts.
Though treatment court doesn’t accept anyone under the age of 18, referrals coming in for 17-year-olds over the past two years has shown an alarming trend.
Businesses are also being affected by the trend, as Dawson County Chamber of Commerce President Christie Moore said that many businesses have voiced concerns over potential employees abusing substances.
“What some of our businesses are facing is the choice of ‘do I hire these employees knowing they probably can’t pass a drug test and just forego drug tests’ or ‘do I drug test them and know that maybe two out of the five maybe are able to pass it,’” Moore said.
Though drug tests are not required by law, the chamber has been promoting incentives and benefits for businesses that participate in the Drugs Don’t Work campaigns and are committed to being drug-free work places.
Having one of the lowest unemployment rates in the region and lots of new businesses coming into Dawson County, there are numerous opportunities for employment yet employers are still struggling to fill positions based on the question of drug testing. Smaller businesses especially have to weigh their options.
“That shouldn’t be ‘I either have enough employees and I don’t drug test’ or ‘I don’t have enough employees.’ That shouldn’t be the options,” Moore said.
Places like the Goodwill Career Center in Dawsonville work to help those with barriers seeking employment.
“Substance abuse is a great concern for our community and the businesses we help to find quality candidates,” said Vice President of Career Services Jenny Taylor. “We are experts at workforce development. We have helped more than 100,000 of our neighbors in north Georgia find employment over the last five years. One of the ways we have fueled that success is by having a focus on partnering well with organizations whose areas of expertise complement the work we do to support people looking to make a positive life change - things like transitional housing, nutrition assistance, transportation and substance abuse treatment.”
Across the board, community agencies have seen dramatic increases in substance abuse and its effects on the county that raise questions as to what is causing the dramatic increase and why community members are turning to substance abuse.
It’s a question that’s difficult to answer.
“It’s not as clear as defined as black and white,” Johnson said. “A lot of people self-medicate. They’re looking for something to help with the issues they’re having so that drives them to look for different remedies so to speak, escapes, so it’s very complex.”
Admitting that there is a problem to address is the first challenge as many coalition members expressed.
“Part of it is just the culture in this area. It’s changing but you still have the belief ‘everything stays within the family. We don’t talk outside the family.’ I think there is almost a sense that if we start talking about it it’s going to become more of a problem,” said Joe Stapp of Blue Ridge Counseling, who is also part of the coalition. “Kind of a superstitious feeling that once you call it out then it’s going to become a bigger problem but there’s no evidence to show that’s the case.”
Shedding light on substance abuse, supporting the accountability courts, getting involved and not turning a blind eye, understanding that substance abuse is not a victimless crime and making agencies aware of the problem are ways the community can help, according to Wilbanks.
“Having compassion in any situation I think it’s really important that making sure that both our businesses and individuals are aware of if you are a person that has struggled with any type of addiction whether it’s alcohol, opioids, meth – that there are people that care, there are resources for you,” said Moore.
For those wanting to get involved and learn more about substance abuse and its affects, Friends of Recovery is hosting the second annual Drug Awareness and Recovery Expo at Dawson County High School at 6 p.m. Sept. 10.Editor’s note: This is the first article in a series regarding the Dawson Substance Abuse Coalition.
A list of community resources for those struggling or know someone struggling with addiction:
American Red Cross – 866-724-3577
Sheriff’s Department 706-344-3535
Children’s Center for Hope & Healing – 770-532-8372
Department of Family & Children Services – 855-422-4453
No One Alone – 706-344-3853
No One Alone crisis line – 706-864-1986
School Social Workers – 706-265-1244
Alpha Hope – 706-216-4735
Avita (Dawsonville) – 678-866-8777
Blue Ridge Counseling – 706-974-3899
Family Counseling of North Georgia – 706-265-8224
Jydes Family Clinic – 706-531-1364
Positive Solutions for Life – 706-265-1357
Wellspring Counseling of North Georgia – 706-265-2244
Dawson County Health Department – 706-265-2611
Good Shepherd Clinic – 706-429-9914
Good Samaritan Health Clinic – 706-253-4673
Laurelwood – 770-219-3800
Abba House Women’s Recovery Center – 678-208-2000
Alcoholics Anonymous – 706-265-3514
Georgia Drug Recovery Hotline – 888-565-6401
Help Line Georgia (Substance Abuse) – 800-338-6745
Narcotics Anonymous – 706-531-4981
Suicide Prevention – 800-273-8255