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Amelia Silver
Amelia Silver
Amelia Silver

BENNINGTON -- An increasing number of children in Bennington County are being born with an opiate dependence, said Amelia Silver, development director of the Sunrise Family Resource Center on Tuesday.

Hard numbers are difficult to come by, she said, but she estimates the number of opiate dependent children her agency serves has increased by 50 percent in the past five years. Located on Union Street, Sunrise serves families facing a wide range of problems ranging from poverty, to drug addiction, to a lack of housing. Often the problems come in a bundle, but when drug addiction is present that is the obstacle that prevents the others from being overcome.

Sunrise is not a drug treatment center, Silver said, but families facing drug addiction are growing in number and the staff there is trained to recognize and understand those problems so they can be advocates and make referrals. That can be quite difficult as Bennington has no residential or intensive drug addiction treatment options. A few local doctors can prescribe Suboxone, a drug used to treat opiate addiction, but there is a limit to how many people can get those prescriptions. When the limit has been reached, those in need of treatment must travel to Brattleboro or Rutland, which is not always a viable option.

Silver shared this information and more with Gov. Peter Shumlin's office in December. Silver said the governor's office contacted her to get input for Shumlin's state of the state speech scheduled for 2 p.m. today in Montpelier.

"The growing problem of opiate and heroin addiction in Vermont will be a key focus of the governor's speech to lawmakers on Wednesday," said Susan Allen, special assistant to the governor. "While the overall state of the state is very strong, addiction and the crime that accompanies serious drug dependence is a threat to that quality of life."

Denise Main, Sunrise's family service director, said her organization serves many who encountered drugs early in their lives. "I think part of the scariness of that is that these young people have access, however they have access, to prescription drugs, and that addiction happens so quickly," she said. "That is part of the struggle that we're seeing, and the treatment for that hasn't quite caught up."

When drug addiction enters a young family's life, jobs are lost, rents go unpaid, and custody of children can end up being lost, sometimes permanently, said Silver. "The social costs are huge, but the economic costs are also enormous, because someone is having to take care of all these people," she said.

The existing treatment options in Bennington County for drug addicts are "grossly inadequate," said Silver. She said there needs to be some kind of intensive care facility in Bennington and similar places. She said drug issues are not unique to Bennington County, but the difference here is access to treatment.

Silver said she has been invited to attend the state of the state address.

Senator Dick Sears, D-Bennington, who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Tuesday he expects Shumlin will talk about two bills Sears has proposed, one that increases the penalties for home invasions, and another that will assess the level and type of risk posed by a person arrested for a drug crime. He said there is a difference between a drug addict and a drug dealer, and even drug dealers selling to support an addiction versus turn a profit. He also hopes to expand the drug court program being used in Chittenden County.

"I've heard law enforcement say ‘we can't arrest our way out of this,'" said Sears, referring to the large drug sweeps conducted in Bennington County and other places in Vermont last year. He said the sweeps made it clear, at least in Bennington, that the treatment side of addiction was sorely lacking.

Funding will be an obstacle to any treatment solutions, Sears said, but on top of that where to put the treatment facilities if they are part of the proposal. He said the existing facilities were not created without a fight and he would expect some resistance to any new ones.

Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at kwhitcomb@benningtonbanner.com or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr.