There are about 800 kids in out-of-home placement in St. Louis County, according to Patrick Boyle.
Roughly 46-48% of those cases are due to parents with drug addiction, presenting a $14 million burden to taxpayers, the County Board chair said Tuesday.
Those statistics underscore the ongoing financial and social burdens associated with opioids and methamphetamine in the Northland, which has seen a disproportionately high rate of overdoses in recent years. And while progress has been slow, police and elected officials said they're starting to see effects from their enforcement, treatment and prevention efforts.
The latest development in the fight is St. Louis County's selection for participation in the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program from the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The move is promised to pump additional funds and resources in the region and allow local law enforcement to better cooperate with other agencies in dismantling drug trafficking organizations.
"There's no cracks in the system anymore," Boyle said at a news conference.
Once finalized, St. Louis County will be one of seven counties in Minnesota receiving the federal designation.
"We're strapped for budgets," said Duluth police Lt. Jeff Kazel, who commands the regional Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crime Task Force. "Getting this at this time is pretty big for us. We've shown that there is a definite need in this area. We've shown that we can produce results with the resources we've been provided in the past."
The HIDTA designation is primarily enforcement-focused, providing about $100,000 in funding for operations, supplies and other expenses incurred by the task force, which includes numerous agencies in St. Louis, Douglas, Carlton and Lake counties.
Sheriff Ross Litman noted that the task force receives partial funding from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety's Office of Justice Programs. But last fiscal year's $410,000 grant has been reduced by $10,000 for next year, he said.
The sheriff credited Kazel's leadership in securing St. Louis County's selection in the competitive HIDTA process, calling it "crucial" to combating the epidemic.
"The task force and all the partner agencies in our area have been very, very successful," Litman said. "We have a strategy and we have a plan in place to deal with the problem. We're not just throwing money at the problem. Our past history shows results."
St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin said his team of prosecutors welcomes the additional workload that could be in store.
"None of us are in this alone," he said. "We could be a bunch of siloed departments, siloed agencies. But we're all in this together."
Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken frequently speaks of a "three-legged stool" response to the opioid epidemic, combining enforcement with treatment and education. Treatment gaps have been shored up with the 2017 opening of an opioid withdrawal unit at the Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment.
Tusken said the education component has been lacking, but noted outreach efforts recently began at Duluth Denfeld and East high schools. Police said the HIDTA designation could allow for better outreach to students at the 35 or so high schools covered by the task force region.
"This has been something that we have never faced before, the magnitude of this problem," Tusken said. "In my 28 years of Duluth policing, I've never seen an addiction problem that's not only so substantial but also the fact that it's killing people and ruining lives."
U.S. Rep Pete Stauber said he has seen the wide reach of the opioid epidemic firsthand. A longtime Duluth police officer, he recalled responding to an overdose from a woman in her 70s shortly before retiring.
Stauber, who helped secure the HIDTA designation after taking office this year, said the need for federal resources is obvious.
"St. Louis County is doing a tremendous job overall in meeting this need and understanding that the investment we make today pays off tenfold," Stauber said. "We either do it now or we do it later and it's going to cost us much more."