Whiteclay area substance abuse center closes, leaving few alternatives

By: - March 27, 2023 11:04 am
(South Dakota Searchlight/Datawrapper)

(South Dakota Searchlight/Datawrapper)

LINCOLN, Neb. – The only inpatient substance-abuse treatment center serving the Whiteclay, Nebraska, area has closed, making help for Native Americans battling alcohol or drug problems even less accessible.

The Northeast Panhandle Substance Abuse Treatment Center (NEPSAC) in Gordon, 37 miles from Whiteclay, closed Jan. 31.

The center, which had operated since the 1990s, was the only inpatient treatment center for alcohol and drug abuse in the vicinity of the sprawling Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, which sits across the border from Whiteclay in South Dakota.

The unincorporated village was the former home of four beer stores that fueled rampant alcohol-related problems on the reservation before the outlets were closed in 2017.

Alcohol sales and possession are banned on the reservation, though ironically, sales of recreational marijuana are not, after a 2020 vote.

Victor Gehrig, the executive clinical director of NEPSAC, said that declining admissions, in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the inability to hire staff in rural, northwest Nebraska forced the decision to close.

‘Bad news’

“Financially, we weren’t going to be able to make it,” Gehrig said. “It’s bad news … no matter how you put it.”

He said he’s been trying for four years to hire a substance abuse counselor, without success, and said in recent months, he and the other counselor working at NEPSAC had to fill in as weekend “techs” because of a lack of employees.

“I couldn’t keep up the pace anymore,” Gehrig said.

NEPSAC, which, when fully staffed, had a staff of nine, could serve nine inpatient clients at a time in a program that would extend for 50 to 60 days. Ninety-five percent of its clients were Native Americans, and the facility was funded to serve both Nebraska and South Dakota residents.

Duke Engel, a Lincoln counselor who filled in at NEPSAC over the years when Gehrig needed time off, said the beauty of the facility was that “no one had to explain life on the reservation.” Staff in Gordon knew what life and the challenges were like, Engel said.

“That was the strength of it,” he said. “There was a comfort level when getting treatment there.”

Alternatives farther away

On the Pine Ridge Reservation, a program called “Anpetu Luta Otipi” (which means “walking the red road” in Lakota) operates an intensive outpatient substance abuse treatment center in a facility designed for inpatient care.

But because of financial and staff issues, the facility has not been able to be used for inpatient care. That’s been a common problem for similar treatment centers, officials there said.

“We need a doctor, nurses, counselors, people to stay at night” for a 24/7 inpatient facility, said Tamela Wounded Arrow of the Kyle, S.D.- based program. “They’re hard to find.”

Wounded Arrow said that now, those seeking inpatient treatment for drug and alcohol abuse may have to travel to Mitchell, S.D., nearly a five-hour drive away.

Gehrig said that there are also  inpatient treatment facilities contracted to serve Native Americans in eastern Nebraska, including the Intertribal Treatment Center in Omaha. But it is a seven and a half hour drive from Pine Ridge and, he said, often has a long wait list.

Alcohol-related problems on the Pine Ridge Reservation are as bad as ever, according to Wounded Arrow, even with the closing of Whiteclay.

Now, instead of the high-alcohol beer that was sold by the Whiteclay stores, vodka is the drink of choice on the Pine Ridge. Vodka is cheaper, she said, and is sometimes mixed with rubbing alcohol by bootleggers to increase supply and profits.

This story originally published in the Nebraska Examiner, which like South Dakota Searchlight is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Nebraska Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Cate Folsom for questions: [email protected]. Follow Nebraska Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Paul Hammel is the senior reporter for the Nebraska Examiner. He has covered the Nebraska Legislature and Nebraska state government for decades. He started his career reporting for the Omaha Sun and was named editor of the Papillion Times in 1982. He later worked as a sports enterprise reporter at the Lincoln Journal-Star. He joined the Omaha World-Herald in 1990, working as a legislative reporter, then roving state reporter and finally Lincoln bureau chief. Paul has won awards from organizations including Great Plains Journalism, the Associated Press and Suburban Newspapers of America. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation and secretary of the Nebraska Hop Growers.