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'Bath Salts' Abuse Pushes Hundreds More Maine Kids into Foster Care
10/23/2012   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Maine lawmakers are bracing for unanticipated new costs to the state's foster care program as the number of drug-abusing parents surges. The state has transferred $1 million in unspent funds to the office of child and family services to cover the needs of 200 children whose parents are abusing the synthetic drug known as bath salts. As Ajay Higgins reports, although immediate expenses are being covered, the projected spike in foster care costs is only expected to grow.

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Members of the Legislature's Appropriations Committee are used to hearing from Therese Cahill-Low, the director of the Office of Child and Family Services and her co-workers. But they were not prepared for the information Cahill-Low recently presented during the panel's regular monthly meeting. "We have over 200 children more in care today than we did 11 months ago," Cahill-Low said.

And if the unexpected surge in the numbers of children needing foster care is astonishing, the events that resulted in their placement with the state are even more shocking.

'The reasoning for that, as I talk with staff, is that they are seeing severe, severe neglect on behalf of parents who are particularly involved in substances - particularly finding in the Bangor area, bath salts," Cahill-Low said. "The effect of that substance has been detrimental to families."

Officials at DHHS were able to cover the unanticipated costs of the program through unspent funds. But lawmakers expect that foster care costs in Maine will increase as families disintegrate in the aftermath of a bath salts epidemic.

Gov. Paul LePage and the Legislature reacted to quickly last year to the rapidly proliferating use of synthetic bath salts by passing legislation to try to curb their use. Bath salts can be snorted, smoked, injected or swallowed, and cause hallucinations, convulsions, and psychotic episodes. Under Maine law, possession of bath salts is a misdemeanor, but those who unlawfully traffic in the drug face felony charges.

"Clearly bath salts is a phenomenon that has sort of exploded, especially in the Bangor area, although it's being under-reported in other areas," said Rep. David Webster.

After Cahill-Low briefed committee members on the foster care developments, state Rep. David Webster, a Freeport Democrat, said he was concerned about how reliable Maine's social service safety net is in the aftermath of recent cuts to many state health care programs.

"I'm curious whether you've had any conversations through the Office of Substance Abuse regarding the capacity - is there a need for increased capacity? -- if we had a drug court, or through substance abuse counseling or interventions of that sort," Webster asked.

Cahill-Low says she is working with the state Office of Substance Abuse to determine how state agencies can better respond to the problems that bath salts drug abuse is creating in the state. But she says formulating an effective response isn't easy.

"The problem with bath salts is that when people are taking bath salts they are incredibly unpredictable, and the long-term effects are unknown," Cahill-Low said. "And so treatment is really kind of an unknown, I believe, at this point as to how to treat that kind of addiction, and whether or not these people are actually ready to be treated."

Asked by state Rep. Peggy Rotundo, a Lewiston Democrat, whether the state has enough case workers to deal with the influx of new foster care clients, Cahill-Low said DHHS has established a work group to evaluate whether the foster care system is still meeting the needs of the state.


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