Community blueprint acts as a guide to improvement

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NEWARK – Drug and alcohol use soared to the top of a list of challenges facing Licking County following an in-depth study of the top concerns of local residents, leaders and service providers..

Substance abuse ranked 12th among concerns in the last United Way of Licking County Community Blueprint in 2006, reflecting the surge in addiction and overdose deaths in recent years.

The blueprint also concluded a lack of reliable county transportation hinders those without vehicles from getting and keeping jobs or being able to make appointments.

Residents also found teen education to be lacking, a scarcity of high-paying jobs in the county and higher crime than in the past.

To help create solutions, the United Way has organized the most serious issues into three different groups by priority: behavioral health; children, youth and families; and poverty.

United Way Executive Director Deb Dingus, who began a 50-day walk Thursday to raise awareness of the top issues, said each priority group committee will now discuss their collective outcomes and indicators

While the United Way can’t fund everything, Dingus said suggestions from the community blueprint can create the biggest impact on the concerns brought up by the community.

“We’re trying to create a culture of hope for Licking County,” Dingus said. “The message we’re trying to send is it’s not all doom and gloom, just the opposite. We’re all part of something larger, and we’re more connected than we realize.”

The Advocate will profile the top issues residents are experiencing and what local agencies are doing to assist them in upcoming Sunday editions.

Drugs and alcohol use

In 2014, an estimated 12,325 Licking County residents age 12 and above required treatment services for substance dependence.

As the co-chair of the behavioral health committee, Penny Sitler wants to focus on what programs are the most effective.

“The blueprint will measure where we are now and where we are headed down the road,” she said.

Sitler said that Mental Health America of Licking will continue to find ways to improve their current addiction programs through community response.

“We’ll provide information about resources that are available to help direct people to get the help that they need,” she said.

Sitler added that the best way to help those with mental illness and addiction is to educate people.

“By providing training and information, we can give guidance for encounters with people with mental illness and addiction,” she said.

Jobs in Licking County

In 2013, 44 percent of Licking County residents reported they commuted to jobs outside of the county, which was higher than the state average by 17 percent.

Licking County Jobs and Family Services Director John Fisher said that the statistics make sense, as Licking County is geographically close to the Columbus metropolitan era.

“The blueprint indicated that people elect to live in Licking County for the quality of life,” he said. “Plus the improved infrastructure of Ohio 161 and Interstate 70 help ease travel.”

Fisher said the county is blessed with a diverse economy of jobs, ranging from manufacturing, health care and the public sector.

“I believe there are more jobs coming to Licking County,” he said. “Companies grow and come to the county because of our location and our infrastructure.”

Fisher cited Amazon’s decision to build in Licking County and other western growth as an example that Licking County is getting more attention from larger companies.

He said that the growth of jobs is dependent on factors outside of the county’s control, like the national economy, but he is confident that it is a healthy environment for job growth.

“We’ve got a great workforce, we’re geographically located to Central Ohio, we’re on good thoroughways and we have good education organizations,” he said. “These are all advantages to grow our economy.”

Crime and domestic violence

The public remained highly concerned with crimes despite a decrease in violent and property crimes between 2013 and 2014.

Domestic violence was an increased concern especially, having risen from an average rank of 18 in the 2006 blueprint process to the top ten in the latest study.

Many who responded to the survey said they found the crime to be private, so it was a little harder to report, but it was still just as prevalent as other crimes.

Tricia Hufford, director of domestic violence services for The Woodlands Serving Central Ohio, said she sees the agencies that help children families and poverty are all combined to battle domestic violence in the county.

“This community is good at recognizing the strengths of other agencies and programs so that we share the need between ourselves and spread the funding around,” Hufford said. “It’s a good way to make sure the help is shared equally with little duplication of services.”

Child abuse or neglect

In 2015, 1,435 cases of child abuse were reported and investigated. Those cases involved a total of 2,044 children.

A subject similar to domestic violence, child abuse was reported as a top ten concern among all groups responding.

“There were 184 children taken into custody in 2015,” Kim Wilhelm, children services administrator for Licking County Job and Family Services, said. “74 percent of those cases involved one parent with substance abuse problems.”

She said the department’s job is complicated by the negative association children services receive.

“It’s the number one misconception that our agency takes children away with our own decision. We have to be ordered by a court to do that,” Hufford said. “It’s our goal to help the family address the issues and to keep it together. Taking the children is our definite last resort.”

Healthcare

Twenty-six percent of emergency room visits at Licking Memorial Hospital were made by people aged 18 to 30.

LMH suggests these numbers might indicate a lack of primary care physicians or health insurance for people in their 20s.

The top reason for emergency department visits were for treatments of upper respiratory-related afflictions.

Going forward

While there is no group that will direct the focus groups to do, Dingus said the social impact will come from educating stakeholders and partners in the community to lead the way.

“[The blueprint] is a call to action, and we’re asking people to take the information that we give them back to their networks and programs that are already working on improving the community,” Dingus said. “We’re only at the point where we can identify [problems] and we’re trying to call people into action and we encourage them to get on board through existing programs and collaborations.”

blawlis@gannett.com

740-328-8822

Twitter: @BarrettLawlis

Found in The Newark Advocate on April 9, 2016

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