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Lawmakers get a lesson on the drug problem in Texas, by the numbers

August 8, 2018

Drug abuse is involved 70 percent of the time when Texas Child Protective Services removes children from their families. Half of the inmates in county jails across the state have demonstrated a need for drug treatment.

Those are a few of the statistics presented to lawmakers Tuesday as they study the impact of substance abuse on criminal justice and state agencies. The numbers, presented by experts and social service agencies, also show the impact of the opioid crisis on state government.

Fifty-two percent of child fatalities caused by abuse or neglect during the 2017 fiscal year were impacted by substance abuse, said Hank Williams, commissioner for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.

But he said Texas has yet to see a spike in opioid abuse in these cases. Instead, Whitman said the drug most often linked to neglect-related child fatalities is marijuana.

“They’re largely due to the incapacitation of the parent, which prevents the parent from properly supervising and ensuring the safety of the child,” Williams said. A common cause of child death related to marijuana is suffocation from co-sleeping with a parent who is under the influence, he said.

Of the 231,000 offenders in a supervised probation program in Texas in 2017, 44 percent of felony offenders and 52 percent of misdemeanor offenders were directly linked to controlled substances or DWIs, said Carey Green, director of the Criminal Justice Assistance Division of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Experts said a substantial portion of children in the juvenile justice system demonstrate the same need.

Of more than 38,000 children referred to the juvenile justice system in 2017, about 9,600, or 25 percent, were identified as having a need for substance abuse treatment, said Camille Cain, Executive Director of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department. Over 3,600 children were diagnosed with a co-occurring disorder, compounding the problem.

But she said only 4,000 children participated in prevention treatment, demonstrating the gap between the need and the resources available.

She said while there’s a clear need to expand treatment capacity, treatment should also be expanded to focus on childhood experiences that could lead to substance abuse down the road.

“(There’s almost always) multigenerational trauma,” Cain said. “The parent has complex trauma, and the child is watching the parent deal with their own trauma with substance abuse as the answer.”

Experts also testified about the barriers to treatment, including “service deserts,” wait lists and the cost. These barriers can lead an individual to the criminal justice system before they are able to get help, said Doug Smith, a senior policy analyst with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

“People are less likely to access services if they wear handcuffs first. That’s the reality for a lot of Texans,” Smith said.

He said Texas has seen drops in almost every category of serious and violent crime in the last decade, while drug related cases continue to increase.

Experts said increasing the capacity of pre-arrest diversion programs is a possible solution to Texas’ substance abuse problem.

“Rather than community-based treatment services, we’ve invested in criminal justice-based services,” said Elizabeth Henneke, a lawyer and executive director of Lone Star Justice. “I have to put many of my clients in jail to get them services. That shouldn’t be the case.”

The committee will hear more public testimony on substance abuse Wednesday morning; the group’s final recommendations are due on Nov. 1.

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