Virtually no resources for teens with severe drug dependency issues available in Bartow, says Brunt

THE SERVICE GAP Juvenile court judges concerned by lack of local substance abuse treatment options

By JAMES SWIFT
Posted 12/14/19

Bartow County Juvenile Court Judge Neal Brunt has been on the local bench for four years. And even though he’s practiced law in the community since the early 1990s, there’s one question about …

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Virtually no resources for teens with severe drug dependency issues available in Bartow, says Brunt

THE SERVICE GAP Juvenile court judges concerned by lack of local substance abuse treatment options

Posted
Bartow County Juvenile Court Judge Neal Brunt has been on the local bench for four years. And even though he’s practiced law in the community since the early 1990s, there’s one question about youth services in Bartow County he said he simply can’t answer. 

“If a friend came to me and said 'My child has a drug issue, what am I supposed to do, where can I go?’, even though I work in the field, I don’t know what I would tell them," he said. "There’s just not a lot of resources in the community right now which can offer meaningful services or meaningful treatment for the families that have those issues.”

He estimates that about 10% of the delinquent youths who come through the local juvenile court have significant substance use disorders.

“It is very disturbing to see a 15-year-old that’s hooked on methamphetamine,” he said. “The problem we have is not the number of kids that have drug issues, because we don’t see that many. It’s just that those who do have that issue, there’s not a lot of help for them.”

Indeed, for such high-risk youths, he said the only option for the court is to recommend placement at the George W. Hartmann Center in Marietta. But even then, the numbers admitted into the adolescent inpatient facility via Bartow’s Juvenile Court are sparse. Over the last year, Brunt said perhaps two or three from his court have been placed there.

“There aren’t many options for adults that have substance use disorder,” he said. “There are virtually no options for teenagers who have substance use disorder issues — there’s nothing in the community that can address that issue.”

Bartow County Juvenile Court Associate Judge Josh Earwood said getting teens into treatment is difficult even if they’re under Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) supervision.

“Even if they’re on probation, there’s very little that’s geared directly towards substance abuse,” he said.

In one recent case, Earwood managed to get a youth placed at the Hartmann Center in Cobb County. But after the teen was barred for violating the facility's rules, Earwood said he was effectively shut out of any substance abuse treatment options whatsoever.

“What I tried to do in that case was just fashion enough restrictions on him through probation,” he said. “That seemed to have help a little bit, but really, there’s no other program to send him to after that.”

Parents with health insurance coverage may be able to afford to send their children to treatment facilities in Atlanta. But for families in Bartow without such plans, Brunt said services remain few and far between. 

The local court does offer two youth-oriented substance abuse programs — an outpatient program operated by substance abuse counselor Levurne Batts and the Substance Abuse Treatment  Education Program, or STEP.

“Both of those, we have money that’s supported through grants we receive from the City and also from one of the County funds,” Brunt said. “The STEP program is more for drug intervention, drug education … for the more serious cases, we have the outpatient program, which is more of an intensive program.”

But as Brunt noted, those programs are designed specifically for youths with low-to-moderate risk substance abuse behaviors. For more serious, high-risk juvenile offenders, Brunt said he would like to bring a juvenile drug court — one similar to the adult accountability court program overseen by Cherokee Judicial Circuit Judge D. Scott Smith — to Bartow.

Yet he acknowledges that the numbers — and the resources — simply aren't there.

“We haven’t had a large enough number of those kids, thankfully, to support a program like that,” he said. “And it would be a daunting task, I think, to find treatment — we really do need treatment professionals, and I’m really unclear what I can do to help that along.”

FAMILIAL MATTERS

When it comes to juvenile court cases involving children in foster care or under some form of Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) or court supervision, Brunt said substance abuse isn’t just common — it’s practically universal. 

He estimates that about 85% to 90% of his workload involves cases with either a direct or indirect substance abuse component. For the cases involving children who are removed from homes, he estimates substance abuse is a major factor in about 80% to 85% of them.

“It’s a rare case that substance abuse is not an issue,” Earwood said. “About the only time that it’s not is when it’s somebody with serious mental health issues, or an abuse case is the reason why it came in rather than neglect.”

And in many cases, he said the problem appears to be a generational one. 

“We’ll have delinquent children who come in, and they have parents that have substance abuse issues, which is maybe why they’re living with grandparents or they’ve got parents that are not there to supervise,” he said. 

From his experiences, Earwood said there’s certainly a large contingent in Bartow County that finds illicit substance abuse to be permissible behavior. 

He brought up a recent case as an example.

“We had a witness that was trying to testify about the mother’s substance abuse, using pills, and she kept saying ‘Well, everybody does it, we’re all doing it, we were all using pills,’” Earwood recounted. “It was just so routine in their peer group — ‘I’d get pills for her, and she’d get pills for me,’ it was just accepted.”

That's not the only cyclical pattern Earwood said he's observed repeating throughout the juvenile court.

“I think that the population of parents that we serve, the percentage of them that were involved in the foster care system or with social services as a child, it’s much greater than the general population,” he said. “It’s not uncommon to have a mother here who was in foster care when she was a child or a teenager … I can think of several folks we have in the Family Treatment Court  (FTC) that have.”

Brunt said there’s certainly a connection between mental health and substance abuse in many of the local juvenile court cases.

“You don’t know which issue exacerbates the other, whether or not they’re using drugs to self-medicate the mental health or whether or not mental health issues have arisen because of the prolonged drug use,” he said. “It’s hard to fix one if you don’t fix both.”

Time and time again, Brunt witnesses the groundwork for tragedy laid out in his courtroom. Often, he’ll have a family referred by one of the local school systems due to a child’s poor attendance records.

“Once you start looking at the case, more often than not there are some substance abuse issues with the parents, which just sort of translates into their inability to properly provide for their children and their inability to make sure the kids are going to school,” he said. “By the time they’re 10 or 11, they’re so far behind that they never get caught up — some of those kids then drive into the delinquency side of our court here, where we deal with children who have broken the law.”

From there, some of those kids get on the straight and narrow. Many others, however, do not and continue down the same paths as their parents.

“They don’t have any skills, they don’t have any education, they’ve likely picked up the substance abuse habits themselves,” Brunt said. “And then they find themselves 18, 19, 20 years old, with no way to support themselves, so I think a lot of them just turn to a life of crime."

The research concerning the long-term effects of parental substance abuse on children may be inconclusive, but Brunt said he suspects the end results may be glaringly apparent in the community, regardless.

“I think a lot of the people sitting in the Bartow County Jail certainly came from homes that were impacted significantly by substance abuse,” he said. “Now, whether or not their criminal behavior has resulted because of what has happened to them internally, what’s in their mental makeup, what’s in their body or just growing up in that environment, with parents who were addicted, they learn what they live, and if they lived that kind of lifestyle … they’re just growing up in that life, and a lot of them do not get educated, they don’t finish high school because it’s not a priority in the family.”

THE TREATMENT PIECE

When families with substance abuse issues enter his court, Brunt said the top priority is getting them into treatment as soon as possible. 

Yet, in many circumstances, he’s witnessed a great reluctance on the part of parents to do so. Even with DFCS providing transportation to and from assessments, he said some mothers and fathers still find ways to avoid evaluations and treatments.

“Highland Rivers Health is the primary source that people use for evaluations and treatment — they have to go up there numerous times before they are eligible to start the intensive outpatient treatment they have," Brunt said. "Getting them to do all those things is sometimes quite difficult, because there are a million other things, I think, that occupy these parents' minds other than doing what’s necessary to try to get their children back.”

Yet Brunt even has concerns about the parents who do get slotted into four- or five-month substance abuse treatment programs.

“What I’ve learned from sitting in this court for four years is that treatment really needs to be ongoing over a much longer period than that to be truly effective,” he said.

Which is one of the reasons he brought the  18-month FTC program to Bartow. 

“They’re not getting regular treatment for the whole 18 months, but the treatment goes on, pretty significant treatment, for about a 12-month period,” he said. “We start off with treatment four times a week, an hour and a half to two hours per day … we have an in-house person who gives individual therapy and group sessions through, basically, outpatient treatment services.”

In addition to modalities like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy and Moral Reconation Therapy, Brunt said the accountability court program also includes life skills training provided by case managers. 

Participants are closely monitored throughout the program. Sometimes parents are drug tested three or four times a week. 

“If we can get them engaged in the Family Treatment Court, they have a relatively good chance, if they’re motivated, to be successful in that,” Earwood said. “One of the things I’ve started to do is have more frequent reviews and sort of bird-dog them a little bit to make sure they’re actually following up on getting assessments and getting treatment and getting the drug testing that they need to get done.”

He brought up one participant who is nearing graduation from the FTC program. Earwood said she was on the verge of having her parental rights terminated, but has now been clean for over 12 months and regained custody of her children. 

But others just don’t have that same kind of motivation, he noted.

“A lot of folks, even when the termination’s filed, they can’t stay clean for a couple of months while that’s pending,” he said. 

And from his experiences on the bench, Brunt said the number of parents who truly do seek to modify their behaviors for the better appear to be in the minority.

“The vast majority of people we deal with, they may say they want to change or they may give lip service to it, but their actions show that they really don’t want to change,” he said. “You would think that getting your children back would be a greater motivation than avoiding jail. But the fact is, it’s just not — the mental health issues, the substance use disorder issues, whatever they have, they’re just so great that it’s harder to motivate them.”

Earwood said it appears many of the parents passing through the local juvenile court have lost all hope. 

“They’ve tried to stop various times, and typically if they’re going to come in here, they’ve lost custody of their children, they’ve sort of reached a crisis mode," he said.

And in that, he said it is extremely beneficial for newly enrolled FTC participants to witness others making headway in the program.

“What they’ve seen with their families and peer groups are that you just can’t succeed in things. We have some folks who don’t have that experience, but that’s a common situation that we see,” he said. “Sometimes they see that and realize that there can be positive change, that it is possible. And I think that when they buy into that, that’s when you start seeing some results.”

UNDERLYING FACTORS

Brunt said he is hesitant to view the community’s substance abuse problem as a strictly societal issue. 

“I think it’s a very individual thing,” he said. “These kids that come to our attention, I don’t know for a fact what they’ve been through, but I would imagine that pretty much all of the people that we see that are struggling with this issue have had some sort of trauma in their lives, have had some sort of abuse, some sort of serious neglect … something that’s happened to them in their lives that has caused them to seek relief through substances.”

He acknowledges that’s not always the case, however. Brunt said substance use disorder is something that can affect virtually anyone, anywhere and at anytime.

“I know of kids from homes where I know they’ve been treated well, with good, loving parents and the kids can still find their way into drug use,” he said. “It cuts through all socioeconomic groups, it cuts through all classes, all levels of education — white-collar, blue-collar, churchgoing, non-churchgoing.”

There’s no point in trying to blame the crisis on abstracts like “a more permissive culture” or law enforcement procedures, Brunt said. If meth was as powerful and accessible in the 1940s as it is today, he said the substance abuse crisis would be every bit as destructive as it is currently.

“You have to look at the availability, and the potency, of what’s out there now,” he said. 

Yet when it comes to possible remedies to the substance abuse crisis ravaging not only Bartow but the entire United States, Brunt said incarceration was anything but a cure-all.

“The law enforcement element is certainly an important part — having punishment for people who use drugs is certainly part of the puzzle,” he said. “But anybody who thinks that is the solution, I think, is mistaken. Because I don’t think you can effectively address the societal issues we have with substance use disorders through law enforcement alone.”

Rather, Brunt said a more viable solution requires spending “significant” resources, time, effort and money on substance abuse treatment. 

“We’re desperately in need of people who can provide the treatment,” he said. “I’m hopeful a program like Recovery Bartow can help facilitate bringing those treatment options here. Whether or not that is an in-house program, it’s a more intensive outpatient program, whether or not that’s a peer support network, whether that’s more support groups or whatever it may be, we just need more quality service providers in the community who can offer meaningful substance abuse treatment.”

Earwood recounted a former client reaching out to him after a church service about six months ago.

“She had an adult daughter who was a methamphetamine addict, and she said ‘What do I do, what can I do to help her?’”

An immediate answer, he recalled, did not spring to mind.

“I think the support groups are good, the Alcoholics Anonymous and the Narcotics Anonymous and Celebrate Recovery,” he said. “I think they’re helpful and they certainly play a role, but that’s not a substitute for actual substance abuse [treatment] that’s available to people who want it.”

Still, he said he’s encouraged by the partnerships forged by the local school systems, nonprofits and law enforcement agencies to address the issue from a collaborative perspective.

“Trying to figure out where the holes are in that and fill those gaps, I think is important,” he said. “And I do think that the community coming together for that is important.” 

Community Torn is a five-week series exploring the many ways substance abuse impacts Bartow, with an emphasis on the voices of those most impacted by the community's drug crisis. Using a multidisciplinary approach encompassing public policy specialists, health care providers, law enforcement officials and judicial system representatives, the series seeks to demonstrate the true toll of substance dependency throughout the county.