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Digging Deeper: Meth’s grip on rural Wisconsin

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(WQOW) - Over the past few years, counties across northwest Wisconsin have been dealing with increased meth use. And in the more rural parts of Wisconsin the problem is growing.

"We don't see a lot of marijuana. But meth is there, just about anywhere you want to get it," said Rusk County Sheriff Jeff Wallace.

The highly-addictive and powerful drug has had its grip on the rural northwoods.

"They say a lot of times that one use, and you are hooked and once you're hooked, and you get someone else hooked it just snowballs after that," Wallace said.

Wallace has been the Rusk County sheriff for seven years and said that it has been a steady increase in the amount of meth cases they are seeing.

"Over the years with meth use we've seen homicides, a lot of burglaries, just a reoccurrence of a lot of people that are using, unable to absolutely get control of it," Wallace told News 18.

The city of Ladysmith, which is in Rusk County, has been dealing with this problem too. And the problem doesn't discriminate. The Ladysmith chief of police said they have arrested both men and women with ages ranging from the 20s to 70 with meth.

So far in 2021, the arrests are having both the chief of police and the sheriff ask for the public's help in combating this.

"This is the most arrests that I have seen in or around the city of Ladysmith in my history here at the police department," said Chief Kevin Julien.

According to the Rusk County Department of Health and Human Services, drug-related child abuse and neglect investigations have increased dramatically over the past four years.

"County health services is dealing with cases where there are children in these homes, they have removed some children from the homes," Wallace said. "cases are pending with them. But it does affect the whole county in a whole because everyone who lives here has to deal with that issue."

Looking at some of those numbers from the Rusk County Department of Health and Human Services: of the current open child protective services cases, 67% are open due to safety concerns related to drugs. The current out-of-home care placements where children have been removed due to concerns around drugs is 92%

In 2019 the county removed 19 children and nine of those were drug related. Last year in 2020, they saw 14 removals and 11 were drug related. So far in 2021, there have been 11 children removed and 10 of the children removed from their home was because of drugs.

Anne Brooks is a home visitor coordinator for Indianhead Community Action Agency, a Healthy Families America affiliate that promotes positive parenting and child health development for six northern Wisconsin counties. She has seen first hand the toll meth has taken on the northwoods and the families there.

"It's a cycle and a sad one," Brooks said. "You could be in a really good place and then a hardship happens. Your coping mechanism is drugs and so you are continually going back into that."

She said that one thing that fuels the meth addiction is how cheap it is.

"We have had clients tell us cocaine and heroin will give them a high, but meth will give them a longer high, and it's inexpensive. So, they can get it anywhere for cheap. So, I think in the rural area where there is lots and lots of poverty that's their drug of choice," Brooks said.

Poverty, coupled with the lack of mental health help, has only strengthened the grip the drug has on the area.

"I think we have a poverty issue. I think that has been recognized in our county," Julien said. "We have a lot of mental health needs. It seems like a lot of the meth use and drug use in general and mental health needs go hand in hand."

Brooks believes the answer to stop this cycle is more mental health services in these rural parts of the state.

"It is a desert up there. There is a huge problem with drugs, a huge problem with depression and other mental health issues and if we don't get the mental health services these families need we're going to continue to have a big problem up there," Brooks said.

One thing that all agencies believe to be important in stopping this crisis is early intervention with children and families. And for more extracurricular activities for kids and teens.

Both the sheriff and chief of police told News 18 they are doing as much as they can to combat this, but they need the help of the community to help stop this growing problem.

Katie Phernetton

Katie Phernetton is one of the Daybreak morning anchors.

She joined News 18 in August of 2018 after working as a reporter for five years in the Green Bay market. Born and raised in Green Bay, she prides herself in being a cheesehead through and through.

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