Why are we stigmatizing recovering addicts? The real dangers to our children lurk elsewhere

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category icon Editorials, Opinion

An online petition to halt an inpatient drug recovery center from coming into Camas’ Prune Hill neighborhood has garnered more than 1,300 signatures.

Most of the petition-signers seem to believe future patients at the drug recovery center would endanger the children at the nearby Dorothy Fox Elementary School. 

“It is not appropriate and safe for kids to play nearby,” wrote one commenter. 

“Quality public schools, livability, and safe neighborhoods are the identity of Camas, not for profit businesses which bring unwelcome and unsafe elements to our immediate community,” wrote another. 

“This is an absolutely terrible location for a facility like this! I’m all for these types of facilities but NOT next to an elementary school and densely populated neighborhoods filled with young children,” stated another petition-signer. 

Their fears are no surprise, considering that the folks behind the anonymous Dorothy Fox Area Safety Group — who started the petition — are trying their best to link recovering drug addicts to unspeakable horrors against children. 

Here is what the petition tells people about the reasons for opposing a 15-bed, inpatient drug treatment center overseen by medical professionals as well as state regulators from the Department of Health: “After personally watching a community torn apart from a kidnapping, rape, strangulation of an 11 year old girl at the hands of an addict, we ask that you please sign this petition to be  part of the collective voice educating local leaders and government of the public safety risk versus the existing code designation for an assisted living facility.”

We would have loved to speak to the folks behind the Dorothy Fox Area Safety Group and the Dorothy Fox Safety Alliance Legal Fund — a group that has used the same messaging to raise more than $5,000 on GoFundMe — but they did not return our requests for comment in time for this week’s Post-Record.  

Therefore, we were unable to find out what prompted the group to bring up the kidnapping, rape and murder of a child in connection to a drug treatment facility. There are no links to this horrible story and absolutely no connection between a child’s murder and a nearby drug treatment center. As far as we can tell, this was simply something they threw out there as a fear-mongering tactic meant to scare Prune Hill parents and neighbors. 

And it is working. Hundreds of Camas neighbors have signed the petition and nearly 50 people, nearly all of them anonymous, have donated over $5,000 to hire an attorney to fight Discover Recovery’s proposal to site a private, holistic substance abuse treatment and recovery center at the former Fairgate Estates assisted living center near Dorothy Fox Elementary School. 

To be clear: There may be several valid reasons why the Discover Recovery center would not be a good fit for the Prune Hill neighborhood, but a completely unfounded fear that future patients will harm children is not one of them. Neither are unsubstantiated fears that the facility will increase crime in the Prune Hill area.

In fact, several research studies have shown there is no connection between inpatient drug recovery centers and increased community crime.. 

For example, a 2016 study by Johns Hopkins University researchers published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs concluded that drug treatment centers “have an unfairly poor reputation as being magnets for crime and a threat to community safety that is not backed up by empirical evidence.” 

Likewise, a 2018 study by Texas A&M University researchers published in the Journal of Urban Economics and funded by a Department of Justice grant, found that “substance abuse treatment facilities reduce both violent and financially motivated crimes in an area, and the effects are particularly pronounced for relatively serious crimes.”

“There are broad-based benefits of (substance abuse treatment facilities) in terms of public safety,” the Texas A&M researchers concluded, adding their evidence “is in contrast to not-in-my-backyard arguments that have been used to hinder attempts to expand access through additional facilities.” 

There is no denying the fact that our nation suffers from a substance abuse problem, especially when it comes to opiate addiction. In 2019, the U.S. Health and Human Services agency estimated there were more than 10 million people age 12 and older abusing opioids, including 9.7 million who were misusing prescription pain relievers and 745,000 people using heroin. Between 2016 and 2019, our government spent $9 billion in taxpayer money to help states, tribes and local communities fight the opioid crisis. 

And, by all accounts, the COVID-19 pandemic has only increased our country’s drug addiction crisis. A retroactive study published in JAMA Psychiatry in December 2020, which used data from the National Emergency Medical Services Information System’s 10,000 emergency medical agencies in 47 states, showed drug overdoses during the pandemic, specifically in May 2020, were more than double the rates in May 2018 and May 2019. 

The folks leading the charge against the Discover Recovery drug recovery center seem to believe there are no drug addicts living, working or going to school in the Camas community. They worry about recovering addicts being near school children, yet don’t seem to take into account the fact that recovering addicts are everywhere. They attend Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings in our local churches. Recovering addicts — and addicts who have not yet sought treatment for their disorder — are all around us. They are our neighbors, coworkers, family members, friends, doctors, lawyers, children’s teachers, food servers, counselors, pastors, local journalists, construction workers, you-name-it. No neighborhood in this country is immune to drug and alcohol addiction. 

And for anyone still thinking substance abuse disorders are something that only impact “other people,” we have some bad news for you: the rates of heroin and other opiate addiction have not only skyrocketed over the past decade, they’ve landed smack dab in the suburbs. 

As one journalist for Modern Healthcare magazine noted in a 2017 article, “Strung out in suburbia: Opioid drug crisis hits the suburbs,” the drug crisis “has grown exponentially in big city suburbs in recent years. Areas once thought immune find themselves subjected to the same societal issues that were traditionally associated with hollowed-out urban centers or economically devastated exurbs.” 

Some recent research also suggests teens who come from more affluent communities and attend high-achieving high schools may be more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol in college and throughout their lives than their peers who grew up in lower-income areas. 

The research, published in the May 2018 Development and Psychopathology journal, followed two cohorts of high school seniors throughout their four years of college and into their late 20s. The study found that the lifetime rates of alcohol and drug abuse among young men from higher-income communities was twice as high as the national norm. For women in their early 20s who grew up in high-achieving, affluent communities, the rate was three times higher. 

The results also showed an inverse connection between the “protective power of parents’ containment at age 18” and alcohol or drug abuse in adulthood. In other words, the teens whose parents had strict repercussions for substance use when they were in high school were also more likely to get drunk and abuse drugs as adults. 

Results emphasize the need to take seriously the elevated rates of substance documented among adolescents in affluent American school communities,” the researchers noted. 

Camas neighbors living in Prune Hill want the best for their children. We’ve been living in a state of heightened anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic and it is normal to feel stressed out and fearful at the thought of someone hurting your child. 

But if these same parents were to dig into some of the real dangers to children in this country, they may be surprised by what they find. 

When it comes to worrying about who might harm our children, we often have a tendency to think that “it won’t happen to us” if we just keep dangerous strangers out of our neighborhoods. Unfortunately, the people who are most likely to harm our children are not scary strangers but the devils we already know. 

According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, while “1 in 9 girls and 1 in 53 boys under the age of 18 experience sexual abuse or assault at the hands of an adult,” and girls “age 16 to 19 are four times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape or sexual assault,” the vast majority of perpetrators are people the children know. Only 7 percent of child sexual assaults are committed by a stranger. Most perpetrators are acquaintances, and 34 percent are family members.

The Boy Scouts of America now faces more than 82,000 claims of sexual abuse. And official estimates on the sexual abuse of children within the Catholic Church show 6,433 priests, brothers and Catholoc school officials have been accused of abuse. 

The thought of our children being harmed by a stranger — or even by someone we trust — is frightening, but statistics show we should actually be more concerned by more mundane dangers like driving our cars, owning guns and living near bodies of water.

According to the New England Journal of Medicine, “motor vehicle crashes were the leading cause of death for children and adolescents, representing 20 percent of all deaths (in the U.S., in 2016).” Gun-related injuries were the second leading cause of death among all children and teens in the U.S. in 2016. The study showed that our youngest children face other dangers, with drowning the most common cause of death for children ages 1 to 4, followed by congenital abnormalities and car accidents. For elementary school aged children, cancer was the leading cause of death, followed by vehicle crashes, congenital abnormalities and drowning.

Despite these statistics, the people behind the Dorothy Fox Safety Alliance insist the real danger is the scary “unknown” and have wrongly equated seeking medical help for a substance abuse disorder with moral depravity and a willingness to harm children.

There is a reason why people seeking help for their addictions want to be anonymous — they don’t want to be stigmatized even more by their neighbors and community. But asking for help to fight a powerful addiction is brave. We need to encourage more people to seek help for these disorders, not shun and stigmatize them when they do.

If the city’s hearings examiner approves the conditional use permit for Discover Recovery, we hope the Camas community will rethink their views on drug addiction and honor future patients for trying to heal themselves … instead of accusing them of wanting to harm nearby children.