Meth fuels county foster care ‘crisis’

Hancock County

The increase in the use of methamphetamine is having drastic effects on the youth court system and social services in Hancock County. Youth Court Judge Brehm Bell appeared before the Hancock County Board of Supervisors Monday to explain the problem and ask supervisors for help.

Bell, who recently celebrated his one-year anniversary as judge, said the number of children currently in foster care has nearly tripled since he took over.

“I am making a plea for us and DHS,” Bell said. “I understand your budget is very tight, but this is a train of a different color. When I became judge, we had 84 children in foster care. Today there are over 200 and we got seven more in this morning.”

In contrast, Harrison County, which is much larger than Hancock, has 250 children in foster care, Bell said.

Bell said meth use is a major factor in the spike in numbers.

Over the past year, local narcotics officers have made more than 100 felony drug arrests, officials said.

More often than not, when people are arrested for drugs, their children are taken into the care of the Department of Human Services and placed in temporary foster homes.

DHS officials said in October they have less than 20 social workers on staff.

The children under DHS care are in several different programs, officials said. Some abused children are placed in the care of relatives or foster homes. Other children are placed in preventive care, where they are monitored by case workers.

There are only about a dozen licensed foster families in the county, officials said.

Bell said another adverse effect of the overloaded system is a recent rise in violent incidents involving DHS staff.

“We have seen an increase in violence,” he said.

Last week, two staff members were assaulted and there have been several threats made against staff and DHS, Bell said.
Bell said a full-time security officer at youth court would be a start to solving the problem.

Currently, youth court’s only security is a court bailiff and the officers who are attending cases, Bell said.
Bell asked supervisors if his department could hire a certified officer to be present at all times.

“We need someone who can conduct searches, handcuff and escort children, and perform other jobs,” he said. “If we don’t get someone who is certified, it is going to expose us even further.”

Bell said if the county took advantage of a grant and redirected some funds already in use, it would only cost about $10,000 a year to hire a full-time security officer.

Board President Rocky Pullman said he understood the seriousness of the problems at youth court.

“We know you have to have some help over there,” Pullman said.

The board agreed to hire the new security officer and asked Bell to keep it updated on the situation at the youth court.

BY: Dwayne Bremer

The Sea Coast Echo

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