LUMBERTON — Local health, law enforcement and county officials came together Wednesday to find ways to reduce drug addiction in Robeson County, and to lower the number of deaths by overdose.
Some participated in the meeting via video conference call, while others gathered in a classroom in Building 11 at Robeson Community College.
Among people in attendance were Harvey Godwin Jr., chairman of the Lumbee Tribe of N.C.; Joann Anderson, president and CEO of Southeastern Health in Lumberton; Patrick Cummings, county Emergency Medical Services director; Robeson County Sheriff Burnis Wilkins; Matt Scott, the county’s district attorney; Shelton Hill, assistant county manager; and representatives of the Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office.
The district attorney said a plan of action could be made to help tackle the drug problem in the county if everyone in the meeting joined forces.
“If the people in this room or on this call can’t do it, then it can’t be done,” Scott said.
There were 20 confirmed drug-related deaths in Robeson County between Jan. 1 to May 4, and two autopsies related to possible overdose deaths are pending, Sheriff’s Office Maj. Damien McLean said. Those numbers exclude overdose deaths handled by the Red Springs and Lumberton police departments.
Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office Maj. Steve Lanier presented information on the office’s Anchor Initiative, which offers recovery and treatment for addicts.
“What we did was try to find out where our Sheriff’s Office fits in the fight against drug addiction,” Lanier said. “It’s not a fight against opioids, it’s a fight against addiction.”
The initiative, launched in 2017, tackles the stigma of distrust some addicts have of law enforcement, while providing resources and transportation for those in treatment, he said. It’s funded by donations from the Brunswick Sheriff’s Charitable Foundation.
Forty people have been placed in the program this year, and about 100 have been treated since June 2019.
As of Wednesday morning, there were about 15 people in treatment, said Jonathan Oliver, an agent with the Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office. The program provides aid to people regardless of their county of residence. It has provided treatment to 10 Robeson County residents so far this year.
Lanier encouraged Wilkins and Scott to gain support from communities and faith-based organizations by appearing at town hall meetings after COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.
“Whatever we can do to help, we’d be more than happy to,” Lanier said.
Robeson County’s American Indian population has accounted for 59% of the overdose deaths, Wilkins said. While whites accounted for 31.8%; African Americans, 4.5%; and Hispanics, 4.5%.
And the Lumbee Tribe is working to reduce that number, Chairman Godwin said.
Tribal leaders are discussing the construction of a recovery center, Godwin said. Funding for the project will come from the Indian Housing fund.
“The thing is finding the location,” he said.
Godwin has asked SRMC to provide recovery services, once the building is constructed.
A $180,000 grant the hospital received from the N.C. Healthcare Association and uses to help people struggling with addiction will run out this month, said Renae Taylor, Southeastern Health’s chief nursing officer. And the hospital must take care of those needs before pledging to fund any other needs.
The program, which began in August 2018, has made a difference, said Pat Godbold, an SRMC unit manager. One year into the program the hospital saw a 38% decrease in drug-related Emergency Department visits. It also has seen a 52% decline in hospital stays and a little more than 20% decrease in readmission rates.
“We are committed to being a part of the solution,” Taylor said.
Taylor, whose son has struggled with drug addiction for 15 years, said the system is failing addicts by not educating itself on programs offered to help them recover.
“We ignore their cries for help by allowing it to be easy for them to go the other way,” Taylor said.
The county initiative should gain support from state lawmakers so they can help secure funding, she said.
Carisa Collins, an unemployed peer support specialist and former drug addict of 22 years, said she is willing to help in the fight against drugs. Collins said she can offer support on a level that other addicts need.
“I suffered 22 years of addiction because nobody was listening to what I was saying,” Collins said.
She was turned away three times from a treatment facility and three more times from a voluntary rehab center, Collins said. Later, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was able to get the treatment she needed.
“How many people are asking for help, only to be silenced?” she asked.
Reach Jessica Horne at 910-416-5165 or via email at [email protected]