Concern about the fight against opioid abuse and human trafficking peppered the discussion led by Rep. Steve Knight and Texas Rep. Michael McCaul at the Santa Clarita Sports Complex Monday morning.
Knight, R-Palmdale, and McCaul, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, were there to talk about federal- and local-level efforts to solve the crises in California’s 25th Congressional district and throughout the state.
Much of the discussion was about the magnitude of the problem and the need for more funding.
“Santa Clarita is the third biggest city in Los Angeles County, and it’s close to the ports,” Knight said. “So (for trafficking), it’s an easy jaunt to get through. A lot of the goods that go north go right through Santa Clarita.”
Participants in attendance included Assemblymen Tom Lackey, R-Palmdale, and Dante Acosta, R-Santa Clarita; Santa Clarita City Councilman Cameron Smyth; Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Capt. Robert Lewis; Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department officials and others.
Lewis said overdose statistics have gone up, and there have been seven deaths from opioid abuse so far this year. That number is alarmingly close to the area’s record, which was 11 from the year 2011, he said.
“We’re dealing with opioid abuse with a three-prong approach,” Lewis said. “We have rehabilitation, education and potential incarceration. But the number is slowly increasing and the epidemic is becoming stronger and stronger.”
“A lot of people think of Santa Clarita as low-crime, but there have been problems with opioids and sex trafficking, which are issues we’d never want to have in any community,” Knight said. “But they still affect communities like this greatly.”
Cary Quashen, executive director of the Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital Behavioral Health Unit and director of Action Family Counseling, said rehabilitation facilities have been seeing not just heroin, but also more crystal methamphetamine and cocaine addiction.
“It’s clearly a crisis in the state, and the challenge is to not blame people who are addicts, but also have interventions that are successful,” Lackey said.
Participants discussed a need for more law enforcement that could tackle the issues.
“There is not a lot of funding for the law enforcement side to identify trafficking victims in L.A. County,” said Capt. Kent Wegener, of the L.A. County sheriff’s Human Trafficking Bureau. “We believe the most effective approach is a regionalized approach. But smaller municipalities can’t assign a specific detective because they have to prioritize all of the regional needs.”
Wegener suggested that more funding should go toward helping municipalities share resources on the county level, too, such as the bureau’s L.A. Regional Human Trafficking Task Force.
The Action Family Counseling Center in Santa Clarita has around 70 residential beds always occupied, Quashen said, and they also have approximately 50 intensive outpatients from the Santa Clarita Valley.
“I don’t know anyone who doesn’t know someone affected by drugs,” he said. “When we talk about the stigma behind it, it’s getting better in my book because everybody knows somebody affected. The first thing you want to do is not fight this thing alone. You can’t get help until you reach out.”
Knight said his biggest takeaway from the roundtable was law enforcement needed a funding source, and collaboration between departments was necessary.
“If the federal government does anything with funding, it’s also a matter of getting the Department of Justice, the Department of Labor involved,” he said.
The House recently passed Knight’s H.R. 5546, to use Department of Defense funds for combating opioid trafficking and abuse in the United States.
Earlier this year, President Trump also signed McCaul’s bill, H.R. 4708, that provided guidance to agencies for stopping human traffickers.