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Tribes launch multi-faceted offensive to combat substance abuse

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PABLO – Tribal officials say more stringent rules for receiving housing assistance, and pharmaceuticals have been put in place in the four months since the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council promised to aggressively combat substance abuse on the Flathead Reservation. 

At the April 3 council quarterly meeting officials detailed the measures they have taken to combat drug problems that have been whittling away at families and tribal funds for decades. Council and tribal social services noticed an inordinate number of babies being born with drugs in their system last fall, and it was the final straw that encouraged taking action. 

A November council resolution called for the creation of a plan to combat substance abuse. In March, a work group of law enforcement officers, social workers, and community members came together and hashed out ideas for a plan. The Tribes will hire a facilitator to complete the substance abuse plan before the end of April. 

However, tribal leaders aren’t waiting for the plan to be written to take action. 

“This may sound awful, but we no longer house parents who have babies in the (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) because they are hooked on opiates or meth,” Tribal Council Vice Chair Carole Lankford said. “ … It was hard, but on the other hand it was easy, because we need to make sure these parents understand.” 

The decision was successful and the number of drug-addicted parents seeking assistance dropped off drastically, Lankford said. 

The Salish Kootenai Housing Authority has also cracked down on drug use. “Housing is for families and children, it’s not for drug users to start selling,” Lankford said. 

The housing authority has zero tolerance for drug usage, and is what the program's director Jason Adams called “heavy-handed” on penalizing drug abusers. Under the policy, a preponderance of the evidence can result in eviction without a formal conviction or police report. That means housing workers can snap a photo of a pipe or other drug paraphernalia in the house and it’s enough to evict the residents on those grounds. 

The high stakes means that neighbors who report potential dealers often fear retaliation for speaking up. 

“The idea that frustrates me the most is when someone calls me and says, ‘My neighbor has a lot of traffic. My neighbors scare me and I’m scared to talk to you because if they know I talked to you my tires will get popped,’” Adams said. 

Since March Adams and tribal law enforcement have been knocking on the doors of houses that people have complained about. The tenants were told that illegal activity would not be tolerated and inspection of the homes followed. 

Problems linger even after methamphetamine users are gone. The Tribes have spent approximately $200,000 this year on environmental cleanup of residual toxic chemicals left in housing units after meth evictions. A recent unit was so contaminated it will take an estimated $40,000 to make the home safe again. 

“The levels were off the charts,” Adams said of chemical testing results in the home. 

Increased costs for remediating housing units means fewer resources are available to provide other social services, tribal council members pointed out. 

Director of Tribal Health and Human Services Kevin Howlett said his department has also made important changes meant to curb access to drugs. 

“If you lose your script – the dog ate it, it fell into the spaghetti sauce – we’re not going to refill it,” Howlett said. “Every excuse in the book was there.” 

The tribal pharmacy monitors prescriptions through the state board of pharmacy database to keep tabs on patients that might be “doctor shopping” for more medication. Howlett also is working with the state legislature to pass new laws that would prohibit physicians from prescribing unlimited amounts of opiates. Howlett’s office filed a formal complaint about a physician on the Flathead Reservation that was prescribing an inordinate amount of opiates to pregnant women, but the complaint was dismissed because under state law, there are no limits to how many medications are prescribed. 

“It’s not a problem just on the reservation,” Howlett said. “It’s a problem across the state, but it’s particularly acute on Indian reservations because we’ve not had any controls. Quite honestly, there are more things we can do in getting the laws changed.” 

Howlett would also like tribal patients quit doing business with physicians who overprescribe, but Indian Health Services has contracts with those healthcare providers until October. After that date Howlett hopes the Tribes will be more selective in deciding which doctors to use. 

Aside from the institutional changes, the council members applauded efforts by individuals who have started support groups in their communities to share stories of overcoming addiction. 

“That’s where it starts, from the community,” Lankford said. 

Tribal member Lois Friedlander said community support is going to be key to overcoming the substance abuse problem, especially for children who are born into families of users. 

“If we’re going to cure anything, it has to start with very early education,” Friedlander said. “There are kids leaving their parents and coming to social services. They want new parents. Too bad they were dealt the parents they have. We have to target and focus on saving those children. It’s going to take money.” 

Friedlander blamed the problems on a loss of culture and a feeling of hopelessness among youth. 

“We’re killing ourselves,” Friedlander said. “We had beautiful systems pre-European contact. It won’t take much to get back to that. We knew how to live poor, but be spiritually rich. We need to get back to that … When you’re kept in a state of dependence and there is no hope – many of our young parents don’t have much hope – is it any wonder they are going to go out and just numb themselves?” 

For many, drug abuse isn’t some abstract force to fight. It is intimate. 

Friedlander said she wakes up every day and worries that some family members won’t be alive. Councilwoman Patty Stevens said she thinks of the two six-year-olds she’s raising, sometimes without hearing from the parents for  weeks on end. Howlett’s experience combating drug abuse spans a half-century. A mother and two siblings were lost in the battle. Another sibling is in protective custody with a broken neck, broken arm and is homeless. 

“That’s the real world out there folks,” Howlett said. “I applaud this effort. It’s never too late to start … No child, not your grandchildren, or your great-grandchildren should ever have to endure the scourge that this has put on this.” 

He encouraged everyone to join in the fight.

“Let’s come together as a community and not let (this) evil thing control the future of our lives and our children.” 

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