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Prescription drug abuse leads to spike in neglect cases, child protection investigators say

The stories are startling, heartbreaking, infuriating.

A 3-year-old imitating how her parents used needles to shoot oxycodone into their veins.

A 31-year-old mother, who gave birth to a baby with an anti-anxiety drug in her system, unable to stay awake while investigators asked her about her daughter's multiple facial cuts.

A small child wandering the streets while her mother lay in a prescription drug-induced stupor.

Stories like these aren't hard to find. Child abuse investigators say cases of child abuse and neglect involving prescription drugs have skyrocketed over the past two years in Pinellas and Pasco counties.

The agencies' statistics don't specify which drugs are being misused in child welfare cases, but the "vast majority" involve prescription drugs, said officials with both sheriff's offices.

The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office child protection investigation division saw child welfare court cases involving drugs rise from 30 percent in 2008 to 57 percent in 2010.

"This prescription drug thing has just exploded over the last 18 months or so," said Pinellas County sheriff's Capt. Gregory Handsel, who led the child protection division until he transferred to internal affairs in December. "It's almost doubled, which is really significant and puts an increased workload on our investigators."

In Pasco County, the news is even worse. Between 2008 and 2010, cases of child neglect or abuse where investigators determined drugs were being misused rose 108 percent, said Kevin Doll, spokesman for the Pasco County Sheriff's Office.

In 2008, the Pasco Sheriff's Office closed 318 investigations with "verified findings" of substance misuse in child welfare cases. In 2010, that number grew to 663, and that did not include the month of December, for which statistics were not yet available.

Across the board, child welfare specialists say they are seeing fewer cases involving illegal drugs, but more involving abuse of legal prescription drugs like oxycodone, a narcotic pain reliever, and Xanax, an anti-anxiety drug.

"That's what we're hearing, anecdotally — that there's been a shift," said Jeff Watts, regional substance abuse and mental health program administrator for the state Department of Children and Families.

Officials say they're seeing a lot of cases involving people who were good caregivers until they became addicted to prescription drugs. Many have no criminal history or previous allegations of abuse. Some are people who were legally prescribed the drugs but later became addicted. Prescription drug abuse is affecting all levels of the community, child welfare officials said.

"It really could be anybody," said Brandi Lazaris, program administrator for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office child protection investigations division. "We're seeing younger people, first-time moms … parents who may not have had any prior contact with us."

Former Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Irene Sullivan, who retired from Unified Family Court in December after nine years there, said she saw it in her courtroom.

"It affects people who wouldn't normally be in dependency court," she said. "These are not people who typically would abuse their children."

Sullivan started noticing the trend about three years ago. Prior to that, it was unusual for the drug of choice to be a prescription drug, she said. It used to be cocaine and heroin.

Drugs like oxycodone and Xanax can create a mental fog, causing "zombie parents" who are unable to provide basic care for their children, said DCF regional spokesman Terry Field.

"The issue here is the substances we are dealing with now tend to leave you so out of it. We've seen parents who are sleeping 22 hours a day," Field said.

Handsel, from the Pinellas Sheriff's Office, referenced a case last fall in which a toddler wandered near a busy road while the mother was passed out.

"That's a common report we get over and over," he said.

• • •

There have also been cases in Florida of parents so zoned out on prescription drugs that they rolled on top of their babies while sleeping, killing them, or crashed their cars, injuring their children. Toddlers have been hurt in the home because of a lack of supervision, officials said.

High unemployment rates and the notion that prescription drugs are safe and legal may also account for some of the increase in cases.

"It's a sign of the times," Handsel said. "With the economic difficulties, it's drawing more and more people … looking for that escape, and they're finding it in their medicine cabinet."

And that presents challenges for child welfare specialists, from investigators to treatment specialists to the judicial system.

People overusing the drugs may have a legitimate prescription. Investigators must then try to determine if the person is using the drugs at levels that are not considered therapeutic — they may even count pills to see how many have been taken over a period of time.

"They could be abusing it or selling it, and either one could put a child at risk," Field said. "Ten years ago we never thought we would be in the business of counting pills."

In the Tampa Bay area, there have been several notable cases of abuse or neglect linked to prescription drug use or abuse. A Spring Hill grandmother allegedly took her 5-year-old grandson with her as she sold OxyContin. A 1-year-old girl in Pinellas Park was hospitalized with oxycodone in her system.

In one of the worst cases, Steven Alfano of Spring Hill was charged with murder after his teenage son overdosed in June 2008. Witnesses reported the father gave prescription drugs to the 15-year-old to "teach him how to party right." Alfano died in hospice care of an undisclosed illness before the case went to trial.

Officials say more concrete data on abuse and neglect cases involving prescription drugs could be helpful in assessing the problem and determining the best treatment options.

But they don't need statistical studies to show them it's a burgeoning problem.

"We've got mothers that don't get out of bed three or four days at a time and the fourth- or fifth-grader is dressing themselves in the morning," Handsel said. "I don't see an end in sight. That's the alarming part."

Prescription drug abuse leads to spike in neglect cases, child protection investigators say 03/13/11 [Last modified: Sunday, March 13, 2011 10:06pm]
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