Not infrequently, when someone who's appeared in Judge Terence Perkins' courtroom is placed on probation, he'll get a new order dismissing their case and their probation requirements.
"I bet I get one every single day," he said. "I had two today. You know why? They're dead. … a lot of them from drug abuse."
Perkins, who heads the county's drug court program, was speaking at the Youth Substance Abuse Prevention Forum organized by the Junior Chamber of Commerce on Feb. 16.
“We cannot arrest our way out of this epidemic — and it is an epidemic. We must educate, we must prevent, we must enforce and we must provide treatment."
— RICK STALY, Flagler County sheriff
The event also featured comments from Sheriff Rick Staly, Embassy of Hope Foundation Executive Director Dr. Michelle Carter, Chiumento Law family law attorney Cynthia Lane and Flagler Health+ Care Connect+ program coordinator Jennifer Wills. It was moderated by Junior Chamber of Commerce president and founder Bryan Soudrain, with an introduction by Palm Coast Mayor David Alfin.
Speakers said the drugs on the street today aren't the ones people remember from the '60s.
Fentanyl, Staly said, causes most of the deaths, but it's increasingly laced into other drugs.
"Fentanyl is used by drug dealers because it's cheap to cut heroin to make a larger supply, which equals a larger profits. It's all money driven," Staly said. " ... Often, addicts and social drug users don't know that their drug is laced with fentanyl, and that's what increases the chance of an overdose — because you just don't really know what you're taking. And they're not expecting such a potent reaction."
Much of the crime in Flagler County is related to drugs, even when suspects aren't charged with drug crimes — people may steal, for instance, to fund their drug addiction.
Perkins estimated that 80% or so of the county’s felony crimes have some kind of drug connection.
"We're very fortunate, in this area, to have a judiciary that is informed and educated to deal with these issues.”
— CYNTHIA LANE, attorney, Chiumento Law
Crime numbers dropped during the pandemic — it's harder for deputies to catch people who are confining their criminal activity to their own homes — but are now creeping back up again, Staly said.
To help fight youth drug abuse, Staly said, the county and other agencies have partnered for a $1.2 million mental health and substance abuse grant, which was awarded in June 2021 and is being dispersed over three years, at $400,000 per year.
”It focuses on expanding services for youth and young adults,” Staly said. “The goal is to divert youth and young adults from the juvenile or adult criminal justice systems to appropriate mental health and substance abuse services.”
The program, which focuses on youth under 25, has served 340 people so far, Staly said.
The FCSO has also equipped deputies with Narcan since 2018. They’ve administered more than 200 doses.
To help keep young people on a positive track, the FCSO oversees a series of youth programs, including the law and justice academy at Matanzas High School. Over 2,700 youth participated in those programs 2021.
But more work is needed.
The county jail in Flagler County has become a de facto addiction services provider, but corrections facilities aren’t designed for that, Staly said.
“We cannot arrest our way out of this epidemic — and it is an epidemic,” Staly said. “We must educate, we must prevent, we must enforce and we must provide treatment. But with all of those programs have to be funded appropriately.”
"Chris didn't grow up poor. Chris was smart. Chris comes from a loving family. Chris's family has resources. None of that seemed to matter."
— MICHELLE CARTER, executive director, Embassy of Hope Foundation
Lane sees the effects of the drug epidemic in her law practice.
Flagler County is fortunate to have a unified family court, she said, because that lets them get to know the families who come before them.
In most cases, drug use isn’t their only problem.
“Usually, it's substance abuse plus … mental health, substance abuse and childhood trauma, and homelessness, and something else that's going on,” Lane said. “So we're very fortunate, in this area, to have a judiciary that is informed and educated to deal with these issues.”
In 2019, the Department of Children and Families took approximately 2,400 children into custody in the Seventh Circuit area including Volusia, Flagler, St. Johns and Putnam counties, she said.
In Flagler County, she said, about 90% of those cases involved substance abuse.
Only about 30% of those children are successfully reunited with their families.
“That is definitely a number that we want to see increase — the children that go home successfully,” she said.
Breaking cycles of addiction, she said, starts with treatment.
“It has to start with community; it has to start with access to resources,” she said. “And the good news is … that all of those things are possible. All of those things are present.”
Wills said that many people begin abusing substances because they’re self-medicating for mental health conditions.
At Flagler Health+, she said, “We're really focusing on opening the door for communication for our youth, so that they have a safe area that they can talk about mental health, mental distress."
Carter, the mother of former professional basketball player Vince Carter, emphasized that substance abuse can affect any family.
“We're really focusing on opening the door for communication for our youth, so that they have a safe area that they can talk about mental health, mental distress."
— JENNIFER WILLS, Flagler Health+
Both of her sons — NBA star Vince Carter, and her younger son, Chris Carter — had done well in school, been school athletes, grew up in an upscale neighborhood, she said.
But Christopher, who'd wanted to be a meteorologist, had faltered, dropping out of school in his senior year. His parents found out he'd been using drugs.
"Chris didn't grow up poor. Chris was smart. Chris comes from a loving family. Chris's family has resources," she said. "None of that seemed to matter."
At 42, he's now serving out a violation of probation sentence, she said. Jobs and housing are hard to find.
"This started when he was younger than these young men sitting in front of me," Carter said.
She commended Flagler County for tackling the drug problem.
"Maybe Flagler County has the model for other counties," she said. "Let's start in Florida — everything has to start somewhere — to help people get back, really get back, into society."
Staly said that as the county's population in recent years surpassed 100,000, he's seen more service providers interested in serving the area.
For instance, the county government has partnered with SMA Healthcare and Flagler Health+ to create the Flagler Access Center, which opened in January and provides screening, case management, and links to behavioral and drug abuse treatment services.
"In the last year, 18 months, I've seen as a sheriff a huge increase in providers wanting to be in Flagler County," he said. "That's only going to make it better for everybody."