No drug tests yet in Work First program

By Bob Shiles - [email protected]

LUMBERTON — Although drug testing became a requirement for some applicants and recipients of Work First benefits on Aug. 3, almost a month later no one has been tested for drugs.

According to Sandra Cox, who manages the program for the Robeson County Department of Social Services, none of 40 recent applicants for the program that provides parents short-term training and other services that help them find jobs and become self-sufficient met state requirements for mandatory drug testing.

North Carolina General Statue 108A-29.1 requires substance-abuse screening and testing for the illegal use of controlled substances if there is “reasonable suspicion” that an applicant or recipient of Work First funds is taking illegal drugs. Reasonable suspicion is determined by a score of three or above on the Drug Abuse Screening Test or if there has been a conviction related to an illegal controlled substance within the past three years.

Cox said that the department’s staff had prior to the start of mandatory drug testing been asking Work First applicants a number of questions during the screening process to determine if there were a substance-abuse issue. If there appeared to be a substance abuse issue, the applicant was required to see a counselor, she said.

The Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test that Work First applicants must take includes 10 questions about drinking patterns. While it may not by itself be a positive indicator of alcohol abuse, Cox said that combined with other information and observations made by a case worker during the interview with the applicant it can be a useful tool in helping to determine the possibility of a drug problem.

According to state DSS policy, the intent of the law requiring the mandatory drug testing is to assist in the identification of potential substance use issues and refer the applicants or current recipients of benefits under the First Work program to the help they need to resolve these issues.

Cox told members of the county’s DSS board of directors recently that the benefits provided to children through the Work First program would not be cut because a parent or guardian loses their benefits until their issues associated with drug or alcohol abuse are resolved.

“I think it is great to require the drug-testing,” Cox said. “This is not designed to be negative. The whole purpose is to make the benefit recipient self-sufficient and able to help their family. One can’t be self-sufficient until they are free of substance abuse.”

Cox said that there are approximately 50 new applicants for the Work First program a month. She also said that approximately 750 recipients of Work First benefits will be screened over the next year that could potentially be affected by the new drug testing requirements that went into effect Aug. 3.

The bill requiring a mandatory drug test for some applicants and recipients of Work First benefits actually became law in September 2013 after legislators overrode Gov. Pat McCrory’s veto. Under the policy that took almost two years to develop and finally implement, those who pass the screening will be reimbursed for its cost while those failing could be reimbursed for the cost of the test if they successfully complete a treatment program for substance abuse.

At Tuesday’s meeting of the DSS board, Cox said that those in Robeson County required to submit to drug testing will have to have the test administered at Scotland Memorial Hospital in Laurinburg. She said that the state has contracted with Fortes Laboratories to conduct the testing statewide, and that Fortes has designated the site where each county DSS must send its referred applicants to be tested.

According to its web page, Fortes Laboratories is a national forensic company that specializes in drug and alcohol toxicology.

By Bob Shiles

[email protected]

Bob Shiles can be reached at 910-416-5165.

Bob Shiles can be reached at 910-416-5165.

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