Community agencies working to fill prevention gaps after closure of PreventionWorkz

Sean Byrne was PreventionWorkz executive director until the agency closed. (Bonnie Vculek / Enid News & Eagle)

ENID, Okla. — Members of the Garfield County Drug and Alcohol Coalition met at Northwestern Oklahoma State University-Enid on Friday to discuss filling gaps in substance abuse prevention services since the closing of PreventionWorkz.

PreventionWorkz, a regional prevention center serving Alfalfa, Garfield, Grant, Kingfisher, Logan and Major counties, had conducted community substance abuse prevention services for 25 years, until it ceased operations on Nov. 30.

Jay Sharp, lead program coordinator for Rural Health Projects, called the meeting Friday of the Garfield County Drug and Alcohol Coalition, a subset of the Human Services Alliance of Greater Enid, to identify portions of the work plans previously filled by PreventionWorkz that could be filled by coalition agencies with their existing manpower and funding.

Prior to shutting down, PreventionWorkz held contracts to fulfill four grants administered through the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (ODMHSAS): a Regional Prevention Center grant to provide drug and alcohol abuse prevention services; a Partnership for Success grant, focused on opioid abuse prevention; a Strategic Prevention Framework State Incentive Grant, focused on educating opioid prescribers; and a State Targeted Response grant, focused on providing naloxone drug overdose treatment kits and training.

Sean Byrne, executive director at PreventionWorkz until it closed, said the prevention center’s board of directors voted in October to terminate those grant contracts with ODMHSAS. The grants would have remained in effect until June 2020, Byrne said, at which time they would have been renewed or awarded to another agency.

Byrne said the decision to shut down PreventionWorkz was made due to mounting dissatisfaction with the focus of the grants, and his own desire to move on from the prevention field.

Over its 25-year history, Byrne said the focus of PreventionWorkz’s grants from ODMHSAS shifted from preventing youth from becoming addicts to trying to stem the supply of addictive substances.

“We moved from direct services, working with kids to build their resilience and create a climate where they don’t even consider using substances to cope, to ‘environmental-based prevention,’ where we began targeting each individual substance, decreasing its availability and ease of access, when it emerged as a problem,” Byrne said. “For many of us this doesn’t feel like prevention. It doesn’t address core underlying issues such as adverse childhood experiences that research shows lead to negative coping behaviors like substance use. It’s a whack-a-mole game ... chasing the new drug epidemics without ever treating the real disease.”

Byrne said waiting another 18 months until the contracts expired, and until another agency could have bid for the grants, wasn’t an option.

“The decision was made that it was not going to be feasible for us, with the staffing we had and with my desire to move on, that year and a half wasn’t going to work,” Byrne said. “It was best to do it now.

“While it was a decision laced with emotions — this agency had been a part of my life and the community for 25 years — in the end it was the best decision for the staff, myself, and the community,” Byrne said. “We hope another agency, maybe with new insights and motivation, will be able to move forward and be a better fit for the changing expectations and strategies in the prevention contracts.”

When PreventionWorkz closed it employed three full-time and one part-time employees, including Byrne. All remaining assets of the prevention center were turned over to Youth and Family Services of North Central Oklahoma, the agency which originally founded PreventionWorkz, Byrne said.

All four of the grants were reimbursement grants, paid on monthly claims, so there were no financial assets to return to ODMHSAS, Byrne said.

Since leaving PreventionWorkz, Byrne has shifted his attention full-time to The Byrne Center, his counseling center, where he focuses on trauma, addiction and mental health issues.

“I’ve changed focus from prevention to treatment,” Byrne said, “which is another side of the same coin.”

Byrne acknowledged there will be some short-term adjustments needed to cover the services previously provided by PreventionWorkz, but said he’s confident other community agencies will step in.

“There won’t be anyone working the contracts for a short time,” Byrne said, “but the community has invested itself in prevention, and I think the community will do fine until new contractors are found.”

Sharp and a handful of members of the Garfield County Drug and Alcohol Coalition were focused Friday on keeping prevention services available until ODMHSAS opens the grants up to be rebid.

Agencies represented were Rural Health Projects, Oklahoma Health Care Authority, Oklahoma Family Network and the Austin Box #12 Foundation.

Gail Box, with the Austin Box #12 Foundation, expressed the need for the coalition to act quickly, both to ensure prevention services continue and to prevent the region from losing its prevention funding through ODMHSAS.

Coalition members spent two hours Friday reviewing portions of a 41-page work plan for the Regional Prevention Center grant, to find areas they could service with their existing staffs.

Portions of the grant they considered included: providing educational support to local schools on substance abuse prevention and prescription drug safety; providing drop boxes for safe storage and disposal of prescription drugs; opioid overdose awareness in the community; training and provision of naloxone drug overdose treatments; distribution of substance abuse prevention educational materials; and helping pharmacies and nursing homes develop policies for safe disposal of prescription drugs.

Theresa Sharp, with Oklahoma Family Network, said the most pressing issue will be to “identify someone who is willing to apply for these grants, and take on those projects.”

Box agreed, saying the coalition needs to “speak up and say who we’d like to work with in our community.”

At the conclusion of the meeting it remained unclear which community agency or agencies might be willing and able to take on the grant services previously provided by PreventionWorkz.

Also unclear was when ODMHSAS would put the grants back out for bid, and whether or not the grants would be released before their current expirations in June, 2020. Jeff Dismukes, spokesman for ODMHSAS, said that information wasn’t readily available Friday.

The Garfield County Drug and Alcohol Coalition will continue its discussion of filling gaps in prevention services at the coalition’s next scheduled meeting, 9:30 a.m. Jan. 25 at The Non-Profit Center, 114 S. Independence.

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Neal is health, military affairs and religion reporter and columnist for the Enid News & Eagle. Follow him on Twitter, @jamesnealwriter, and online at jamesrneal.com. He can be reached at jneal@enidnews.com.