“We saw a 40 percent increase in meth use in 2016 compared to 2015,” Burnett County Health and Human Services Director Kate Peterson said of the crisis.
“Why?” is the big question.
“Is it the type of high users get from the drug or is it because it is relatively cheap?” Peterson queried about the draw of the drug.
“It’s not just men using and it’s not just teens using. We see housewives, 50-year-olds, even kids and their grandparents using together.”
She said the pervasiveness – the constant flow of the drug – is one of the roots of the problem.
“In fact, we conducted a recent point-in-time review of our caseload,” Peterson continued. “Forty-eight percent of our cases were meth-related. That’s a significant increase from even two years ago.”
Still not convinced?
The number of referrals to Peterson’s department regarding meth abuse has increased threefold in the past five years, from 129 referrals in 2011 to 462 referrals in 2015 and 404 referrals in 2016.
“Thirty to 35 percent of those referrals get investigated,” Peterson explained. “The cases we take on, what we refer to as our ‘screen-in’ rate, is up nine percent. That’s telling us we are getting more referrals and more referrals of a serious nature.”
In her time as director of the department, Peterson has seen her share of functional drug addicts, whether it is drugs or alcohol — people who can passably perform everyday tasks.
“We are not seeing that with meth,” she declared. “They think they can manage but the drug quickly takes over.”
Peterson said her department has 60 days to investigate the case before determining what services are to be offered.
“It’s really affecting families,” she said of the prevalent meth use.
When families are involved, the end-game of the investigators is whether to reunify the family or to find a permanent home for the child or children if they are not going back to their parents.
“Our goal is to get the kids back with the family – to keep families healthy,” Peterson noted.
She said cost has never been an issue.
“We can’t not respond because we’re over-budget – the county just has to realize we need more funding,” Peterson said. “But, the cost of the meth epidemic is more than financial – it is not a healthy situation.”
One of the newest concerns among social workers is that mothers who are pregnant are using meth when they are pregnant – leading to newborns already addicted to meth.
“We started tracking this issue, called the neonatal abstinence syndrome, in 2016,” Peterson explained. “We had eight cases last year.”
In fact, Burnett County ranks fifth in the state when it comes to the syndrome, behind Ashland, Vilas, Bayfield and Manitowoc counties.
Peterson believes the old adage “If you see something, say something,” applies to adult meth addicts, but it applies to kids even more.
“Don’t be afraid to call us if you see something you don’t think is normal,” she pointed out. “We as a society have to get past the ‘I don’t want to be nosy’ mindset – children’s lives are at stake.”
She said the numbers of kids reported as being neglected is going up.
“When the parents are using, their kids get neglected,” Peterson lamented.
Burnett County is doing its part to address the addiction. “We are trying to get ahead of it,” Peterson said.
One method is the meth diversion program the county just began at the start of the new year.
“There’s no shortage of people being referred,” she continued.
While the diversion program is an attempt to get people away from the drug, the program is not nearly as intense as it needs to be.
“The 21-day or 28-day treatment programs that work for other drugs or alcohol, don’t work when it comes to meth. We’re talking nine to 18 months of extensive in-patient treatment,” Peterson remarked. “No county can afford that.”
The lingering impact of the drug is just one more reason to say “No.”
“The desire to use the drug is still there after a year or two,” she added.
With a staff of only seven social workers, two of whom are investigators, Peterson said it has been a very difficult situation.
“The numbers are not decreasing,” she added. “It used to be that we’d have busy times but then we’d have a lull. That’s not the case anymore – there’s no down time.”
In fact, the department has brought in a secondary trauma specialist to help workers adjust to the work-stress they experience on the job.
She said her staff is working so hard, with so many extra hours, they have all maxed out the number of comp hours they can accrue.
“It doesn’t mean anything to them – they don’t feel they can take a day off and not be hammered when they come back to work,” Peterson noted.
They’ve had some staff turnover, but fortunately, Burnett has not had the high turnover other counties have experienced with this meth crisis.
“New staff are not prepared for the workload – it takes a while to adjust,” Peterson said.
Burnett County Children and Families Supervisor Allison Fern agreed.
“It’s not what people in the social worker world expect. They now need to be crisis-driven,” she remarked.
“I think people who want to serve in the social work arena need to change their view of what ‘help’ is.”
Among all of their 2016 referrals, Burnett County registered 24 same-day responses, referrals in which a social worker took some action the day the referral was received.
“To me, that’s a significant number,” Fern stated. “It feels like we are receiving a lot more complex cases than we used to. It’s exhausting in so many ways.”
If you have a concern to report, you can call the meth tipline at 715-537-METH. The call center is in Barron County, but Burnett County concerns will be forwarded to Burnett County.
For child welfare issues, people are encouraged to call Burnett County Health and