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Native communities working to combat opioid crisis

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BARABOO (WKOW) -- The opioid crisis is impacting communities everywhere, but Native American leaders in Wisconsin say their community is at a greater risk.

The opioid epidemic was the focus of Forest County Potawatomi Chairman Ned Daniels, Jr.'s State of the Tribes speech last week, when he shared his personal story with lawmakers.

"I know firsthand the pain and suffering this epidemic is causing families," Daniels said in the address. "Sadly, my story is not unique. Native communities across Wisconsin have been hit especially hard by the opioid epidemic. There are hundreds of families like mine who are now caring for the young ones of relatives because of opioid addiction. Opioids are tearing apart our communities, one by one, they are killing our people."

Daniels praised legislation aimed to combat addiction, like the HOPE agenda, but also called for a continued focus on finding solutions.

State officials say Native American youth are two to three times more likely to misuse opioids than any other ethnic group. In 2014, the opioid overdose death rate for Native Americans was 8.4 per 100,000 people, according to the National Congress of American Indians. That's compared to 7.9 for the white population, 3.3 for African Americans, 2.2 Hispanic or Latino and 0.7 among the Asian population.

Native leaders say it's been a problem for a very long time.

"The rates of addiction among Native Americans is significantly higher because of the generational traumas that we've experienced," said Evangeline Suquet, with Ho-Chunk Nation. "Some are more resilient than others and are able to pull themselves out of that addiction or chronic mental health, but that is most oftentimes with the assistance of mental health and substance abuse services."

Suquet is director of Ho-Chunk's behavioral health services. That nation has seen an increase in cases of opioid use disorders. Eighty-four people were treated for opioid dependence or abuse from July 1, 2016 to June 30, 2017. There were 116 cases the following year. The nation saw nearly $500,000 in inpatient treatment funding requests.

Ho-Chunk is going farther than some of the other tribes to address these issues, by offering emergency crisis services at its wellness centers every day, including the House of Wellness in Baraboo.

"On a daily basis, there's one designated mental health or substance abuse counselor whose schedule is clear for walk ins or should medical need them down in the clinic," Suquet said. "They can come right down to the clinic and address any issues with the patient while they're here in clinic."

State health officials work with all 11 tribes in Wisconsin to help them with best practices and networking, to find out what's working in each community.

Wisconsin Department of Health Services consults with the tribes twice a year, looking at all DHS topics, including opioids.

"That's where we make specific connections with leaders for all different tribes. But then we also obviously connect to them more on a one-on-one basis," said director of opioid initiatives Paul Krupski. "We are providing them funding to maybe increase medication-assisted treatment services within the tribe, providing them with direct technical assistance on that side, it can be better implemented and made more available to them."

Krupski says DHS works to build relationships and partnerships with the tribal nations, based on their needs.

"Making sure that we are supporting them on culturally-appropriate and culturally-sensitive approaches that they know work in their communities," he told 27 News.

In 2020, DHS is providing tribes more than $2 million for treatment and prevention programs related to the opioid epidemic, including family service programs, mental health and substance abuse grants and youth services.

Ho-Chunk is getting about $280,000 for opioid use disorder treatments right now.

Suquet says the tribe is using that money to train staff at casinos on Narcan use, to pay for expensive treatments for patients and outreach and to get the entire community on board with ending the opioid crisis.

"We are more focused on that community education component, and the willingness to sort of come out of their shelter and be able to say, 'this isn't okay anymore, I don't want drug dealing to be going on in my communities. I don't want to have to clean up needles at the park where my kids play'," she said.

Ho-Chunk is also working right now to set up a home for women with substance use disorders in the Black River Falls area, where the nation is based. Right now, wait times are high for people looking for inpatient treatment, so it would provide a place for women to stay safe in the meantime.

The Potawatomi tribe is using state-allocated gaming funds to develop a youth wellness and treatment center, according to Daniels. He told lawmakers it would be centrally-located in the state, so it could be a hub for children from all of Wisconsin's native nations.

That nation is working with stakeholders from state and local agencies to share information and connect with schools and police to address issues in the community.

If you or someone you know needs help, the state has resources and more information available on its Dose of Reality website.

Members of Ho-Chunk Nation can contact the Behavioral Health department for help at (715) 284-9851.

Jennifer Kliese

Weekend Anchor and Reporter, 27 News

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