Smithfield's anti-substance abuse grant expires

Smithfield's anti-substance abuse grant expires

SMITHFIELD - The town's task force against substance abuse, which says its programs have helped reduce underage drinking here, is taking a major a financial hit with the expiration of a five-year federal grant that provided it with $125,000 annually.

According to Jeannie Vickers, who administers the Smithfield program through Tri-Town Community Action, much of the agency's work can continue, but hands-on police enforcement - such as unannounced sweeps of liquor establishments to discourage the serving of minors - could be curtailed.

She said Tri-Town, the nonprofit through which the grant was written, unsuccessfully sought its renewal, and except for state funds she described as "minimal," will henceforth operate without government funding.

The upside, she said, is that Smithfield, classified a decade ago as among 12 Rhode Island communities with the greatest need for substance abuse assistance, is no longer on that list.

"But the downside is that we don't get any money," she said.

Police Chief Richard St. Sauveur Jr. said the expiration of the grant is certain to affect enforcement, especially the unannounced liquor sweeps using underage "decoys" who ask for drinks while police wait outside for a cell phone message indicating a minor has been served.

"I'm not budgeted for this," he said of the sweeps.

Town Councilor Maxine Cavanagh, the council's liaison to the task force, said the cutback could also affect the agency's ability to conduct certain educational programs, such as one in which the group financed a trip to the women's section of the Adult Correctional Institutions to hear talks by prisoners sentenced for driving drunk.

She said young people also visited the mother of a child who was brain-damaged and wheelchair-bound after being hit by a drunk driver, and, "hopefully it sank in that this is the thing that happens when you drink and drive."

Vickers said that much of the task force's work will endure despite the cutback, because some of its time has been spent working with town officials on new ordinances that tighten controls on the serving of liquor. Also, she said, educational materials that have already been paid for can still be used.

"That's the glory of this type of work - a lot of what we do can and will live on."

Among continuing efforts, she said, is distribution of posters stressing that a majority of teens are not involved in substance abuse to "show kids they don't have to go along to be popular."

Still, she said, the grant provided significant financial resources for hands-on police enforcement, including the liquor sweeps and the purchase of devices that detect falsified drivers' licenses and are randomly distributed on loan to liquor establishments.

Despite inroads made by the task force, substance abuse remains an issue in town, and Vickers said that prescription drug use may be supplanting alcohol as the major concern.

This past year, Chief St. Sauveur successfully asked the town to fund an additional detective to help combat what he said was a thriving illicit drug trade here.

A state study completed last year said that in a 2011 survey, more than half the students responding at Smithfield High said they had consumed alcohol, and 118 students said they had ridden in a car driven by a friend who had been drinking. Forty-seven said they, themselves, had driven after drinking.

Despite those numbers, the 50.1 percent of students who reported ever having had a drink was lower than the state high school average of 55 percent.

Asked about drug use, 216 students - a third of those responding - said they had tried marijuana; 44 said they had tried crack cocaine; 49, Ecstasy; and 39, heroin.

In general, the percentage of underage drinking in Smithfield appeared to be shrinking, according to a report Tri-Town issued in 2009.

The agency said it had hoped that as a result of its continuing efforts, it would see a 5 percent reduction. Instead, self-reporting by high school students here indicated that those saying they had at least one drink in the previous month fell from 24 percent to 11 percent.

Vickers said she was not surprised that the five-year grant, which expired Monday, was not renewed.

She said the grants are competitive nationwide, less money is available now, and preference is given to communities that have not previously received money.

The local volunteer task force is always looking for new members, who serve two-year terms, Vickers said. Anyone interested can contact Patricia Sweet, the agency's coordinator who works at Tri Town, at 401-519-1903.

The task force chairman is Frank Luca. Other members are citizen volunteers, as is Luca, or are affiliated with town agencies such as the Police, Fire, School, and Recreation Departments, the business community, and youth organizations.