Some Worry the City's Drugs Task Forces Are Withering Away

The HSE has said it will no longer fund two community-participation workers, according to Siân Muldowney, coordinator of the Inner City Organisations Network (ICON).

The positions, funded through the North Inner City Drug and Alcohol Task Force, have been in place for 18 years, she said.

“The Community Participation Project was established in recognition of the importance of community engagement in addressing issues of addiction,” Muldowney said.

This is the latest step in the long erosion of a system of drug task forces that have been in place since the late 1990s to tackle the dual problems of drugs and criminality, says Sinn Féin Councillor Daithí Doolan.

Funding for the Dublin’s task forces was about 9 percent lower in 2019 than it had been in 2010 – despite an increase in HSE funding for them between 2018 and 2019, according to figures from the HSE.

Prevention is better than cure, so “you want to be funding projects that prevent addictions” and drug task forces were “holistic in their very nature”, says Doolan, who works with substance users and is on the South Inner City Drug and Alcohol Task Force.

In October 2018, all former ministers with responsibility for drugs since 1997 called on the government to reaffirm its commitment to the drugs task forces saying the partnership approach was on the verge of collapse.

Last Monday night, Dublin City Council agreed a motion from Doolan calling on the government to restore funding to drugs task forces, to the level they were at in 2008, before cutbacks.

“We have fantastic drugs projects in the inner city, but nobody wants to own them, nobody wants to fund them, they all just want to compliment them,” says Doolan.

A spokesperson for the HSE said today by email that it is committed to funding the drugs task forces and is not moving away from funding prevention work.

Community-Participation Workers

The posts facing cuts in the north inner-city are for community-participation workers, who run health-promotion activities.

That includes training on blood-borne viruses, overdoses and first aid – as well as drop-in events where vulnerable community members can come along for a health check without an appointment, according to Muldowney of ICON.

They offer housing-rights advice and provide support to residents experiencing drug-related intimidation. They supported 16 tenants’ associations dealing with cases of drug-related intimidation in 2019, she said.

A key aspect of their role is to ensure that the views of local residents and community groups are fed into the North Inner City Drug and Alcohol Task Force.

A HSE spokesperson said the HSE is committed to continue funding the North Inner City Drug and Alcohol Task Force with a grant for targeted initiatives in 2020.

“The HSE is leading the establishment of a range of new drug and alcohol services as part of the NEIC initiative, amounting to an investment of €1.8 million,” she says.

(In 2016, in response to drug-related violence in the area, the government established an initiative to socially and economically regenerate the north-east inner-city, or NEIC.)

These new services are outlined in the recently published 2019 NEIC progress report and will include the opening of a new “inclusion health hub” in Summerhill, she says.

Meanwhile, the HSE also increased funding for each of the drug and alcohol task forces in Dublin, by €20,000 between 2018 and 2019 – “€10,000 of which will be on a permanent recurring basis”, according to the spokesperson.

What Are Drugs Task Forces?

Concerns have previously been raised about a lack of oversight at the South Inner City Drug and Alcohol Task Force. Doolan says those concerns are not justified and he fears such issues could be used as an excuse not to fund worthwhile projects in the area.

On the northside too, councillors have queried the role of the North Inner City Drug and Alcohol Task Force, and say they have had difficulty getting information about what drug services there are in their area.

So what exactly are the drugs task forces and why do they matter?

Says Doolan, the local drugs task forces were set up in 1997 by Labour TD Pat Rabbitte, when he was a junior minister, responding to the heroin crisis amid a tense climate of marches on drug dealers’ homes and following the shooting of the journalist, Veronica Guerin.

The task forces “were very visionary and very progressive”, Doolan says. It was the first time the Irish government “put the heroin crisis in its socio-economic perspective”, he says.

The task forces, originally established in areas hit hard by heroin, included all the relevant state agencies, such as the health boards, the Gardaí, government departments, educational organisations, as well as local politicians and community representatives.

The local drugs task forces fed information upwards into a national structure, which was chaired by the minister for health, “with a direct line to the Taoiseach”, says Doolan.

Thus, local community groups, drugs workers, youth workers, Gardaí on the beat, and others were able to influence drugs policy from the ground up, he says.

The task forces always had a strong youth diversion element, according to Doolan. If youth or community workers identified young people at risk of becoming involved in drugs and criminality they could apply for money to provide educational opportunities to those young people instead, he says.

“The establishment of the drugs task forces in 1997 was to facilitate a more effective response to drug problems and the associated social needs,” says Muldowney.

“Partnership was to be achieved through improved coordination of services and through utilising the knowledge and experience of local communities in designing and delivering those services,” she says.

Cutbacks

Doolan says that the drugs task forces were working well until the recession hit in 2008, when HSE funding was cut and they passed this on to the drugs task forces. “The cuts imposed in 2008 were absolutely draconian,” he says.

Funding to drugs task forces were then cut every year from 2008 to 2014 and then in 2014 they were frozen, says Doolan.

Figures provided by the HSE for the Dublin task forces for 2010–2019 show cuts from 2010 to 2014. Then funding held steady until recently, when it was increased from about €18.1m in 2018 to about €18.4m in 2019.

“Successive governments reduced the funding for the drugs task forces by 37% during the recession and no substantial restoration has taken place since the improvement in the economy,” says Muldowney.

Nowadays the South Inner City Drug and Alcohol Task Force (SICDATF) cannot fund anything new, says Doolan, who is a member of the task force.

“A person could come to me on the SICDATF, as they did recently with a really good, imaginative, innovative way of responding to young people getting caught up in criminality,” he says. “Great idea, but we have no funding, all our funding is spoken for because it keeps getting cut.”

The simple solution is to reinstate the funding of drugs task forces to the 2008 levels, says Doolan. “That would be a huge boost.”

Some of the agencies involved in the drugs task forces also had reduced staffing due to cutbacks during the period 2008–2014, says Doolan, and some of them pulled back their involvement in the task forces.

Now a push is also required to get everyone back around the table, he says.

Interagency Approach

The Department of Health’s current drugs strategy contains goals on health promotion, harm reduction and community-participation.

So it is unclear to Muldowney why the posts of community-participation workers, who are working across all three of those areas, would be cut, she says.

“There is a degree of frustration that this is being allowed to happen and that state agencies and government departments are operating in silos,” says Muldowney.

“The Department of Health and HSE are making the key decisions with the HSE dictating the distribution of funding, programme delivery and programme content,” she says. “This is no longer an interagency approach.”

The HSE says it remains committed to education, community involvement and harm reduction. The HSE spokesperson said they launched two national harm-reduction campaigns in 2019, with further campaigns scheduled for 2020.

“The [National Drugs] Strategy names the HSE’s site Drugs.ie as a source of harm reduction materials such as the ‘What’s in the pill’ and GHB campaigns,” she said. “The HSE will continue to develop and promote prevention, education and harm reduction messages through this site and its associated social media channels.”

Diversion

The drugs task forces were aimed at addressing problems due to drugs in a broad community context, including the complex overlap between drugs and criminality, says Doolan.

Abandoning that approach can have serious repercussions for disadvantaged communities, he says.

No government department is currently funding the youth-diversion projects that were previously funded by local drugs task forces, he says.

Recently there was an issue with very serious anti-social behaviour, including violence, in St Teresa’s Gardens, he says. The youth and community workers knew who was involved but they didn’t have suitably qualified staff to work with these hard-to-reach young people, as their own project had suffered cuts too, he says.

“They said, ‘We need to put a programme in place to work with these young people to divert them into education and away from criminality and get them to take responsibility for their behaviour,’” says Doolan.

“Before they would have gone to the task force, which would have made an application to the young person’s facilities and services funds,” he says. “But we [on the South Inner City Drugs and Alcohol Task Force] had no money.”

The Department of Justice and the HSE both refused to fund a project of youth diversion in St Teresa’s Gardens, he says.

In that case, Doolan appealed to managers within Dublin City Council and succeeded in getting them to fund that project. However, this is not a sustainable approach, he says.

In another example, in Cherry Orchard, there were issues with young people causing problems with scramblers and quads and youth workers identified that there were 18 young people that were involved.

“Again, no government department or agency was willing to fund the work of diverting those young people away from criminality,” says Doolan.

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Author:

Laoise Neylon: Laoise Neylon is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at laoiseneylon@gmail.com.

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