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DHS news release

This guest opinion by Bryan Johnston, interim DHS director, was published by The Oregonian on Oct. 26, 2005.


Treatment vs. incarceration: Breaking the meth link to foster care



By Bryan Johnston


The Oregon Department of Human Services is the largest agency in the state, with a two-year budget of more than $9 billion in state and federal funds and 9,400 employees. Yet despite its size and resources, its priorities are being set, in large part, by the allure of a drug that is easy to produce, cheap to buy and devastating in its effect: methamphetamine.


Those who doubt that meth is an epidemic should consider this: The national average for drug- and alcohol-abuse treatment admissions is 51 per 100,000 population. In Oregon it's 323. That translates into more than 11,000 people being treated for meth dependency. Sadly, experts estimate that only about 20 percent of addicts even seek treatment.


While meth has found its way into many aspects of the social services Oregon provides to its citizens, two areas stand out: child foster care and drug- and alcohol-abuse treatment.


Meth use by parents is the biggest reason that the Department of Human Services is forced to take children out of their homes and place them in foster care. Some statistics show that as many as 29 percent of meth users have dependents younger than 17. That translates into potentially thousands of at-risk children.


Unfortunately, the growth in foster care corresponds with declines in the number of alcohol- and drug-treatment programs. That means that the fewer people who kick the habit, the more children go into foster care.


Increasing treatment programs for meth users would be one way to break this vicious cycle. Even though the treatment completion rate for meth addiction is lower than for all drug and alcohol abuse (41 percent versus 51 percent), treatment is still effective in getting people off meth and reducing the crimes associated with its use.


National studies show that meth users who complete treatment reduce their use of meth, experience longer periods of abstinence, are more likely to get full-time employment and have fewer personal and family problems. A Washington state study found that receiving treatment reduces the risk of felony convictions regardless of whether treatment is completed. Also, treatment costs an average of $31 a day compared to jail at about $107 a day.


Another solution that benefits both meth users and taxpayers is drug courts, which integrate alcohol- and drug-abuse treatment with the traditional justice system. Follow-up studies show that drug court graduates commit fewer property crimes, fewer crimes against individuals and fewer parole/probation violations.


Congress, the state Legislature, the governor and law enforcement continue to take action to stop the production and use of meth and debate the merits of treatment versus incarceration. Time will tell how effective these actions will be in keeping families together and children out of foster care.


One thing, however, is certain. There are no simple solutions.


Bryan Johnston has been interim director of the Oregon Department of Human Services since June 2005. He leaves the department on Oct. 31.