Over the last eight months, a volunteer organization has been taking shape in Allen County, drawing into its ranks, week by week, individuals from all pockets of civic life — teachers and parents; business owners; a district court judge; lawyers and police; health workers, ministers, social service providers — all of whom have taken upon themselves the difficult mission of stemming the destructive, occasionally lethal, impact of substance abuse among the county’s young people.
The Allen County Substance Abuse Task Force (ACSATF) is jointly chaired by Bryan and Angela Murphy, but its success, the couple insists, depends on the depth of the community’s participation.
In time, the task force, which has recently submitted its application for a $125,000 per year federal grant, will tackle the variety of substance abuse challenges — alcohol, tobacco, prescription drugs — facing the county’s middle and high school students. For now, though, its focus is narrowed on the problem of underage drinking.
Given the absurd neurological fact that the teenage brain combines high impulsivity with low executive function, it’s no wonder that some of the deadliest statistics to emerge from the Centers for Disease Control and the National Highway Safety Administration involve teens who take the wheel while drunk.
“The whole idea behind the task force,” said Sheriff Murphy, “is to be proactive and focus on prevention, so that my job is not so inundated with simply reacting to the consequences of underage drinking.”
The coalition has identified three features of the problem into which they’ve poured their energy and expertise: The first is the easy availability of alcohol to minors, who, the group’s statistics indicate, typically come by their buzz not at a club or liquor store, but at their own or a friend’s home. Second is the family structure in which a young person is raised, in which — often through no conscious fault of his parents — he has never been provided with clear rules regarding the use of alcohol. A connected problem, of course, is the family in which the adults model the proscribed behavior. A final point of focus for the task force is law enforcement — are they paying due attention to underage drinking, are the legal consequences for being caught sufficiently tough? And are there proactive measures by which law enforcement can intervene in a young person’s life early “as opposed,” said Sheriff Murphy, “to never seeing them until they end up in court.”
At this stage the group’s goal is to support existing programs in Allen County, including Alcohol EDU, Parenting Wisely, Party Buster Hotline, and others.
“We’re helping to build a foundation for these current programs and to get the word out,” said Angela Murphy, who is also the county’s 911 director.
Sheriff Murphy: “Unfortunately, they’re about four feet under water. We’re just trying to pump some air into them, to get them to float to the top.”
SUBSTANCE ABUSE in Allen County is becoming more acute.
And while the task force is under no illusion it will be able to completely wipe clean the habit, which is likely as old as the fermented grape, it has the insight to realize the solution will be broader than any single program.
“It is a community problem,” said Michelle Meiwes, a member of the group’s core team, and a staff member at Hope Unlimited. “All of the solutions are going to be based on input from every segment of this community. Most of us work in a social service field and we see the problems that arise every day. If we can address them at a younger age, and help prevent underage drinking, maybe these kids can carry those habits over into adulthood.”
To that end, the task force has built partnerships with teachers, students and administrators in each of the county’s three school districts — Iola, Humboldt and Moran — and is helping to fortify the various prevention programs already in place at each school, while crafting plans to eventually introduce more.
According to the group, sometimes correcting the habits of kids means changing the attitudes of adults.
Jamie Westervelt, the owner of M & W Mfg. and a former substance abuse counselor, recalls seeing a recent exchange on social media in which a parent was being rebuked for calling the police on a party where there were underage drinkers.
“This parent was being attacked for turning in a party. No,” Westervelt said, “they did what they were supposed to do. Whoever turned it in, I don’t care — thank you.”
“We definitely need to change the thinking processes in our community,” said Angela Murphy.
“You can be the cool parent without providing the alcohol,” said Westervelt.
Another member of the core team, Ceri Loflin — an audiologist at Greenbush Education Service Center — grew up in Iola, but then moved away for a period of years, living in Lawrence, then Kansas City. Returning to her hometown after a decade, the picture “was pretty eye-opening for me. And so Jamie [Westervelt] and I had this talk.” And that’s when Westervelt put the question to Loflin that the task force is now putting to the entire community. “She asked me: Don’t you just want to change it?”