A group of government agencies and Yellowstone county organizations have released a plan they say will cut back on drug-related crime and addiction in the region.
Members of the Yellowstone County Connect Coalition shared personal stories as they explained the process of developing the action plan.
Heather Fink is co-chair of the prevention task force, part of the larger Yellowstone County Connect coalition. She said her adopted son’s biological family used excessive drugs, including during pregnancy.
“He has been my son for over six years,” she said. “And he is an incredible kid who’s going to do amazing things, but the reason I’m engaged is because I want less of these stories.”
Yellowstone County Connect says their study of the county shows just over 4,000 adults and teenagers aged 12 years and older are dependent on or using drugs while 9,500 misuse alcohol.
Local law enforcement has said the rise in drug use in Yellowstone county, especially meth, has led to a burdened court system and foster care system and increased crime rate in recent years.
According to the National Survey of Drug Use and Health, in 2014 about one in ten Montanans had a substance use disorder.
The Yellowstone group’s ultimate vision for Billings is to have the lowest addiction and drug related crime rates in Montana.
Kurt Alme, U.S. Attorney for the district of Montana, explained how they could reach that goal.
“The plan has three priorities,” he said. “Prevention, to prevent our kids from moving down the path toward addiction. Diversion and treatment, to divert people from drug related crime through access to effective and appropriate treatment. And, third, system capacity. This is not going to be a flash in the pan that comes with a plan that sits on desks and disappears.”
The plan’s strategies for reaching that goal include creating a community crisis line, providing training for mental health in schools and coordinating prevention funding between government and non-government groups.
Alme says this could be a test program that, if successful, could help other towns in Montana and across the country.
“I was just yesterday meeting with over 40 leaders from the Missoula community who every one of them at the end of the meeting signed on to replicate our structure and take what we’ve done and bend it to the needs of Missoula County,” he said.
Along with about 120 people, including health care professionals and local law enforcement, Billings Mayor Bill Cole attended the Yellowstone plan kickoff. He discussed the plan with Billings City Council Members. State representative Kathy Kelker and a representative for U.S. Senator Steve Daines sat at his table.
After the table top discussions, Mayor Cole expressed his support for the plan by advocating for the Public Safety Mill levy, which could appear on local ballots this year. The levy, which the Yellowstone County Connect plan supports, would raise $25 million over five years to pay for things like law enforcement and emergency services.
“Everybody in this room needs to know that time is critical for the public safety mill levy,” said Cole. “I don’t want to speak for the entire city council but I’m pretty confident that the vast majority fully understands the city needs to play some role in prevention and treatment, which it has not done in the past.”
According to project manager Becky Bey, the coalition consulted with Rocky Mountain Tribal Leadership, the Urban Indian Health and Wellness Center and the Native American Development Corporation about the plan.
LeeAnn Bruised Head, a Public Health Advisor for Indian Health Services, wants to expand Native American involvement further.
“We’d like to be a part of the plan,” she said. “If you could include Indian Health Service facilities and or tribal programs, I’d be more than happy to facilitate that conversation.”
Yellowstone County Connect released their initial community needs assessment in June last year. Their report says violent crime in the county rose 81 percent from 2010 - 2017. Law enforcement attributes the rise to meth use.
The coalition plans to have the first update on the progress of their work in the fall or next winter. Work groups and the executive committee for the coalition will meet in March.
The full action plan is available online.