Winthrop University launched a new social work program on Feb. 1 to help limit York County’s opioid crisis.
The school’s Department of Social Work is partnering with five agencies in a three-year project to help people arrested in York County fight drug addictions, the university announced Thursday.
The program, made possible by a $900,000 federal grant, is designed to help some of the people in jail recover from drug addictions and reduce repeat drug offenses. The program, called the South Carolina Medication-Assisted Treatment Court, is designed to help 30 clients and could be developed in other South Carolina counties.
Winthrop University Social Work assistant professor Jessica Yang said it’s especially important that the program focuses on people during the period starting at their arrest and ending at completion of the case.
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“That’s a really vulnerable time in the life of someone with a substance abuse,” Yang said. “… If we’re not doing anything to support them in the interim, the odds of them recidivating back into the criminal justice system are incredibly high.”
The program will hire a project coordinator, a student from Winthrop’s Master of Social Work Program, and two student workers who will work 10-20 hours a week, collecting data, according to Winthrop University. The program will include training York County detention center employees to screen defendants for the program, and a designated solicitor’s office prosecutor to help wit case coordination, Winthrop announced Thursday.
“Winthrop is proud that our social work faculty and students are able to provide their expertise and compassion to a growing population that needs a chance to improve their lives,” said Winthrop University President Dan Mahony. “We hope this pilot program will provide meaningful change for some of York County’s citizens, and we appreciate that our social work students will get to contribute to such an important endeavor.”
York County Sheriff Kevin Tolson said in a statement through Winthrop that he is excited to participate in the program.
“This battle cannot be fought by enforcement measures alone, and this grant-funded program allows for an innovative, multi-faceted approach that will hopefully begin to address this ever-growing problem,” he said in the statement.
Tolson recently spoke with York County elected leaders and planners about the need for more detention center space. His department could use an eastern booking facility near the Catawba River, expansion at Moss Justice Center or both.
The county inmate population jumped 15 percent in a year and averaged 460 per day in January, Tolson said, largely due to substance abuse.
“Our female inmate population has skyrocketed over the last year-and-a-half, two years,” Tolson said. “For drug violations, basically, or crimes related to drug addiction.”
Winthrop’s Department of Social Work is partnering with the York County Solicitor’s Office, York County Sheriff’s Office, Keystone Substance Abuse Services of York County, Rock Hill Treatment Specialties, and national addiction recovery group Faces and Voices of Recovery.
Yang said the program was born out of a desire to pool resources to combat drug addiction in the community. Winthrop’s Department of Social Work has been partnering with Keystone Substance Abuse Services for about two years, she said.
“Substance abuse is something that impacts and is impacted by every system we have in a community,” Yang said.
Joseph Shenkar, project director and general counsel for S.C. Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services general, was the driving force behind the idea, Yang said. Shenkar said the program is perfect for York County, which has seen a huge increase of opioid-related deaths.
The York County Coroner’s Office reported 60 drug overdose deaths in the county in 2017, compared to 28 in 2011. And the York County Coroner’s Office Annual Report in 2017 showed 48 of the 60 drug overdose deaths in 2017 were directly related to opioids.
York County sued drug manufactures and distributors in 2018, saying they misled consumers and promoted opioid use.
The York County lawsuit says the opioid prescribing rate, or the number of opioid prescriptions given per 100 people as measured by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, shows the “extent of the opioid problem in York County.”
The opioid prescribing rate in York County in 2015 was 79.5 prescriptions per 100 people, and in 2016 the rate was 72.3 prescriptions per 100 people, according to the CDC.
The $900,000 grant, provided by the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs and Bureau of Justice Assistance through the S.C. Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services, also sets up housing scholarships for drug offenders to stay at one of three “Oxford Houses” – self-supporting drug-free homes – in York County.