More local families are struggling with drug addiction, leading more of them to end up in court on criminal charges or at risk of losing their children.
Last year, the number of felony criminal cases filed increased, a spike that is mainly due to more drug charges being filed, the county prosecutor said.
And at the same time, the number of cases filed for children from neglectful or abusive homes and parents at risk of losing their parental rights are continuing to rise, according to statistics from the county courts.
The key factor that ties everything together: drug use, local officials said.
Last year, the prosecutor’s office filed nearly 40 more drug dealing charges than the year before, Prosecutor Brad Cooper said. And that increase is due to more local police departments having undercover narcotics officers who can investigate those cases, he said.
Prosecuting those cases is important for two reasons: reducing the amount of drugs available for sale by arresting suspected drug dealers and trying to get drug users the help they need through local programs, such as the drug recovery court in Greenwood, Cooper said.
Cooper expects the number of drug charges filed will go up again this year, he said.
Drugs are a key issue that is leading families to become Child in Need of Services cases, where children are often removed from the home or the state is involved due to concerns of neglect or abuse.
“There has always been that fringe of drugs in the background, but it exploded, and I think it came on faster than any of us ever expected,” said Tammi Hickman, director of the Johnson County Court-Appointed Special Advocates program, which assigns volunteers to be the voices of children in court cases.
The number of families and children involved are overwhelming, she said.
Hickman, who started as director 11 years ago, had 75 kids in need of an advocate at the time and felt overwhelmed then. Now, she has 275 children who need helped.
“I’ve almost gotten to the point where I’m immune to it, but there are other days it absolutely slaps me in the face,” she said.
With 65 volunteers, the program is not able to provide an advocate for every case, meaning children are on a waiting list, she said. But they also have perfected a triage intake system to find the cases where an advocate is most needed, including meeting with the parents and caseworkers to discuss and agree to what services are needed for that case, she said.
They are able to resolve about 90 percent of their cases through that process, which saves a huge amount of time, she said.
More volunteers are always needed, she said.
Johnson County Juvenile Magistrate Andy Roesener estimates the family court is seeing about 300 new families each year, a number that is on the rise. And more and more of those cases involve drugs, along with mental illness, which has been a continuing concern, he said.
And when parents are struggling with drugs, especially opiates, the chances for needing to terminate parental rights increases because the addiction is so hard to overcome, he said.
The cases are also challenging because they last much longer, officials said.
Almost all substance abuse programs with any level of success work on a timeframe of at least three years, Johnson County Circuit Court Judge Mark Loyd said.
But in the cases where children have been removed from the home, the law requires the cases to be resolved within about two years, and that is a huge challenge, Loyd said.
That means they are required to make a judgement call on whether the children are ready to return home without all the evidence they truly need, he said.
Increasingly often, the answer is that the children cannot return home, officials said.
Parents often refuse treatment offered to them through the court system, which could be their best chance of success at beating their addiction, and that speaks to the true power of the drugs, Roesener said.
Often, those families just don’t have the support to overcome their addiction, along with the slew of other issues they were facing, including poverty and mental health issues, Loyd said.
“They’re sincere, they love their kids. They just simply don’t have the tools,” Loyd said.
Here is a look at the number of certain criminal cases filed in Johnson County in recent years:
Child in Need of Services
Termination of Parental Rights
SOURCE: Johnson County courts