Battling the drug epidemic


As the guest speaker for the monthly Highland County Drug Abuse Prevention Coalition meeting Wednesday, Highland County Probation Department Director of Programming and Clinical Services Tonya Sturgill detailed the department’s involvement in innovative programs that work to fight the drug problem.

In 2015, Sturgill, at the behest of the probation department’s director, kick-started a program to administer Vivitrol, a drug used to prevent a relapse of opioid dependence, to inmates in the Highland County Jail.

“What happened was in 2015 especially, and 2016, our office was really affected, as everyone else was, by the opioid epidemic, and the director at that time came to me and he said the officers are struggling every day with losing people to overdoses, and we need to try to do more as an agency to work together in the community,” said Sturgill.

Sturgill worked with the Highland County Department of Job and Family Services, Family Recovery Services (FRS), and other organizations to start the program.

“That program was very successful through those years, and we ended up giving, at last count, 166 Vivitrol shots in the jail,” she said.

She said the program slowed during COVID, but the department continues to send those in jail to treatment. “It really picked up in 2016, and since that time our department has been responsible for sending 663 individuals to treatment — out of jail and into treatment,” she said.

She said 411 of those individuals have successfully completed treatment.

In conjunction with the Highland County Common Pleas Court, Sturgill was also able to establish the county’s first official drug court in 2019. The program is a rigorous four-phase drug intervention process for high-risk offenders lasting a minimum of 18 months. Drug courts exist around the country, and Highland County’s program has been certified by the Supreme Court of Ohio.

Since its inception, the drug court has admitted 62 participants and has had 14 successful graduates. Another drug court graduation is planned for June with eight participants on track to graduate. Twelve participants in the program have been unsuccessfully discharged.

“We did have the 12 unsuccessful discharges, so we do unfortunately get to that point where we have to use jail, we have to use prison, but those individuals have really been given every opportunity,” said Sturgill.

In general, though, Sturgill said she prefers to use treatment options instead of incarceration to fight the drug problem. “I’m very proud that our department has become more focused on how we can improve lives and change lives as opposed to how we can punish and lock people up, and thankfully the entire probation system throughout Ohio has kind of had to move to that because they realized that that’s not always the answer,” she said.

Sturgill said the drug court program has slowed recently because a judge has not yet been appointed by the governor to fill the vacancy created by the retirement of Hillsboro City Municipal Court Judge David McKenna last September. “Now we have a different judge every day to work with and they don’t know the history, they don’t know our department, and they don’t know what we’re doing, and that’s sometimes harder,” she said. “So, hopefully that happens sometime soon.”

Highland County Drug Abuse Prevention Coalition member Creed Culbreath said he has spoken to members of the drug abuse prevention community in larger counties who were amazed at the achievements of the Highland County Probation Department. “They have completely changed the paradigm of what a probation office is to people on the street and people who need help, and I want everyone to know how fortunate we are to have a probation office like that,” he said.

Reach John Hackley at 937-402-2571.

Tonya Sturgill is pictured Wednesday at a Highland County Drug Abuse Prevention Coalition meeting. Sturgill is pictured Wednesday at a Highland County Drug Abuse Prevention Coalition meeting. John Hackley | The Times-Gazette
Highland County boasts special programs

By John Hackley

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