Vinton County, Ohio, has been on the front lines of the opioid crisis in the U.S. for several years. The drugs may have changed over the years — from opioids to meth — but the devastating effects on families have not. And even though the county hasn't had high infection rates of the coronavirus, the necessary social restrictions have made it harder to keep people addicted to drugs and their children safe.
Vinton is Ohio's least-populated county. When it comes to its response to the coronavirus pandemic, it mirrors what's happening across the nation. Vinton County schools are not in session, most churches remain closed and restaurants are either closed or open only for take-out orders.
"So even here with our normal level of isolation it's a lot different for even us," says Trecia Kimes-Brown, Vinton County's prosecutor.
In 2018, NPR went to Vinton County to report on its struggle with opioids and meth and the effect of having an addicted parent on children. Then, Kimes-Brown told NPR that for households where people were making meth, kids were "living in these environments where they're not being fed. They're not being clothed properly. They're not being sent to school. They're being mistreated."
Now, with social distancing measures in place in Vinton County and schools and churches closed, teachers and clergy — those who are the likeliest to come in contact with abused children — aren't, so they can't report cases of abuse. Kimes-Brown says that she suspects that's behind recent reductions in child abuse reports nationwide. "We've lost all those connections with our kids," she says.
Teachers in Vinton County are trying to connect with families by phone, she says. She hopes that others, such as neighbors or mail carriers — those who might be in more contact with children during the pandemic — report suspected child abuse cases.
"I don't think people realize how much information one report can provide," she says. "There are so many cases that I could say have been decided or made because an eyewitness came across the tiniest bit of information and reported it."
Kimes-Brown says the county is still struggling with what she calls a "horrible" meth problem and is also seeing more abuse of fentanyl and carfentanil. "The fentanyl use is deadly," she says.
And with the introduction of COVID-19, she says, there's more stress on households already dealing with addiction. "And I think we're just seeing the beginning of it – with job loss, unemployment, people are depressed, their kids can't go to school, they can't go to AA, they can't go to NA because those meetings are canceled. They can't go to their normal support groups."
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
First it was opioids, then it was meth, and now it's the consequences of COVID-19. Vinton County, Ohio, has been hit by several crises, and they've had a profound effect on children and families. I was there two years ago on a reporting trip about the opioid crisis, and here's what the county prosecutor, Trecia Kimes-Brown, told me back then.
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TRECIA KIMES-BROWN: When you're living in a house where people are making meth, it's not just the health effects; these kids are living in these environments where, you know, they're not being fed. They're not being clothed properly. They're not being sent to school. They're being mistreated. And they have a front-row seat to all of this.
MARTIN: I called up Kimes-Brown again, and she says over the past couple of years, the drugs have changed, but the devastating effects on families and children have not. And even though the county hasn't had high infection rates of the coronavirus, the necessary social restrictions have made it harder to keep those struggling with addiction and their children safe.
What's it like in Vinton County right now? I mean, are - I presume you're still under stay-at-home orders?
KIMES-BROWN: We are. As you know from being here, Vinton County is the smallest county in the state. Obviously, school is not in session, and most of our churches here in the county are - remain closed. Restaurants have either closed or just limiting themselves to takeout orders. So even here, with our normal level of isolation, it's a lot different for even us.
MARTIN: Yeah. When you and I spoke a couple of years ago for our series on opioids, your office was just totally overwhelmed with cases related to drugs - opioids and meth in particular at that time. Are those cases up now, down now? I mean, describe what you're dealing with.
KIMES-BROWN: So unfortunately, it's not a positive answer. Meth is still very, very, very horrible here. We have switched from the manufacture-your-own, shake-and-bake type of labs that everybody was doing to Mexican meth being so readily available. People weren't cooking their own anymore; they're just buying it off the streets. So it's became even more proliferated than it was when you were here.
And also, the game has changed by the introduction of fentanyl and carfentanil to the state. The fentanyl use is deadly. ODs are up. And I think I've had one of my worst weeks ever. We had three overdose deaths in a period of 12 days, which may not seem like a lot, but when you only have, you know, three in three months, three in 12 days is huge. One of the fellows that is a suspected overdose case, he left behind small children, including a set of twin boys.
MARTIN: So everything you've said has been on an upward trajectory for the last two years. Now with the introduction of COVID-19, that's just putting more stress on individual households who were already dealing with addiction?
KIMES-BROWN: I think so, and I think we're seeing just the beginning of it with job loss, unemployment. People are depressed. Their kids can't go to school. They can't go to AA. They can't go to NA because those meetings are canceled. They can't, you know, go to their normal support groups.
MARTIN: Do these people have access to online versions of those meetings?
KIMES-BROWN: Yeah. So that's something I really wanted to talk to you about because you and I are communicating totally by technology. But I have the luxury of that. There are places in my county where you cannot get even good cell service. So to try to then say, OK, you can do all these things through telehealth or Zoom meetings or all of those sorts of things that the rest of the world is able to do, we're not able to do that here.
MARTIN: How is all this affecting kids? I mean, are the reports you get for child abuse, are those increasing, decreasing? Do you have any ground truth on what's happening with kids?
KIMES-BROWN: So I had read some statistics that, statewide, nationwide, reports are down by about 48%, and that's because our kids aren't having contact with the normal people who would report. They aren't going to school, and so the teacher doesn't see Sammy with a bruise or mark or doesn't get to see Sammy cry. Those kids don't have access to those teachers anymore. And then we've also lost the other group of people who our reports would normally come from, and that would be the clergy, churches. We've lost all those connections with our kids.
MARTIN: What do you do about it?
KIMES-BROWN: On the positive note, teachers are taking it upon themselves to reach out to families, trying to make contact with their kids by phone. They're emailing or, you know, FaceTiming or whatever. But teachers are still trying to make that personal connection with their kids. And another issue that this has created for us is just food insecurity. With the unemployment situation and folks not going to work, the need for food here is tremendous. And so our schools are still providing food bags for kids because a lot of our kids get two hot meals a day at school, and they don't get a lot at home.
MARTIN: Yeah. We've heard officials in other states talk about the need for neighbors to speak out if they suspect child abuse, now more than ever - people who ordinarily would turn a blind eye and say, this is not my responsibility. Have local officials been talking that way to encourage other people to report if they suspect child abuse?
KIMES-BROWN: I think it's imperative, and I've felt that long before this because I don't think people realize how much information one report can provide. A lot of people are tempted to think, eh, you know, they're not going to do anything about it, or I don't have enough information. And so I've always tried to convince people that no matter what information you have, please report it. There's so many cases that I could say have been decided or made because an eyewitness came across the tiniest bit of information and reported it to us.
MARTIN: Trecia Kimes-Brown is the county prosecutor in Vinton County, Ohio. Trecia, thank you so much for talking with us. We appreciate it.
KIMES-BROWN: Thank you.
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