Heroin epidemic battle being fought on many fronts locally

The battle against the heroin scourge is being fought on several levels in Butler County, and while the different groups and people are keeping tabs on each other, officials say one, big coordinated effort would likely not be possible or as effective.

There are groups and individuals from all corners of Butler County working to combat the heroin epidemic that impacts schools, crime and all levels of government. A task force has been at work since the summer of 2013; Probate Judge Randy Rogers has a program whereby relatives can force their loved ones into treatment; Prosecutor Mike Gmoser has used knowledge he has gleaned by talking to addicts, to turn children away from the drugs before they try it; and recently the city of Middletown has waged its own war on the epidemic.

Also, all the county judges are working in concert with a statewide push, launched by Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, Gov. John Kasich and Attorney General Mike DeWine, last summer.

Public officials, private citizens and addiction service providers are attempting to address every facet of the addiction problem, but to an outsider the efforts might appear a bit piecemeal. Insiders say that’s not so, the various groups are keeping each other abreast of their activities so duplication of efforts and gaps in service can be avoided, according to Susan Lipnickey, chair of the county’s opiate task force.

“There are county issues and then there are issues germane to each locale,” she said. “There are some things that the county can do, but then there are some things every little area has it’s own resource uniqueness. So I think part of it is to coordinate the effort without duplicating the effort.”

Middletown has held several summits this year, after dealing with heroin cost the city $1.5 million in 2014. City Manager Doug Adkins said in 2014 the city spent $1.3 million for the police department, including patrols, special operations by the narcotics unit and jail corrections; $167,000 by the fire department; and more than $18,000 for indigent burials of drug overdose deaths. Adkins could not be reached for comment as to why the city felt it needed to wage its own battle.

Prosecutor Mike Gmoser has been attending those summits and other meetings related to the drug problem. He became a little frustrated last year that no clear-cut solutions seemed to be borne out of the many discussions. He invited addicts to teach him about how they got hooked and, in many cases, clean. He then took that knowledge on the road visiting several schools throughout Butler County in an effort to tackle the prevention piece of the puzzle.

“There are a lot of moving pieces and fortunately everybody is starting to get off their duffs and do more than just talk about what the problems is,” he said. “It doesn’t take very long to pick up a newspaper and figure out what the problem is.”

Everyone was horrified last week by the news that a Warren County woman allegedly sold her 11-year-old daughter for sex to a Cincinnati drug dealer in order to get her heroin fix. They also allegedly shot the little girl up with heroin. Fairfield Municipal Court Judge Joyce Campbell, who sees heroin addicts almost daily, said addicts will do extreme things to get the drug, but that was over the top.

“There’s a special place in hell… That momma ought to burn in hell,” she said. “I get it, I have empathy, sympathy, compassion for people that are hooked, but once you cross that line, I don’t have any sympathy anymore.”

The opiate task force recently released a report on their efforts to-date and strategies for meeting their objectives. Aside from identifying both the significant number of resources available countywide and gaps in services, a common thread runs through the plan and that is to change the public perception about opiate addicts.

The only objective on the task force list with a gaping hole under the strategy section is for increasing detox capacity. Last summer, Chuck Demidovich, administrator of the Butler County Care Facility, presented the county commissioners with a plan to convert a wing of his nursing home into a detox center. He got push back from Commissioner Don Dixon who worried about exposing the “fragile” residents who live there to that element. He also said part of the reason he objects to the plan is that after many addicts become clean, even with intensive counseling, they return to their old habits when they get home. He said taxpayers should not have to repeatedly foot the bill for people who can’t stay off drugs.

Demidovich told the Journal-News earlier this year he has changed his mind, because that use does not comport with the nursing home bill of rights.

Commissioner Cindy Carpenter, who is a member of task force, hasn’t given up hope they might be able to do a pilot detox program at the facility, but she said she understands it currently is not a “politically correct” thing in Butler County. She said part of the battle in changing people minds is changing their perception.

“The perception that it’s the criminal element is really not true,” she said. “That’s really one of the key action steps moving forward for us, and that’s just to be a person in the community to say get comfortable with this, we’re going to say the words. We’re going to let you know these people are here, we don’t want them to be invisible.”

Another major goal of the group that will hopefully be realized is a central hotline — on the order of the mental health dial-in service — for addicts and their loved ones. Lipnickey said most people right now aren’t sure where to turn for help and the task force is formulating a plan for a single point of entry to access services.

“We’re looking at a county hotline and those would be crisis-trained individuals who could manage and tell people what to do and where they can go, talk them through it,” she said. “So when you call you get definitive things like people can connect you right away, you don’t have to write down a number take another number. So that people have access to that.”

The judges in the county are also hard at work managing both the criminal element and the civil side. Administrative Judge Noah Powers on the common pleas court is the point man for the county on the statewide effort. He recently submitted a report to the state outlining the myriad of activities going on in the county, such as service provider Sojourner Recovery Services opening sober living facilities and increasing the number of residential recovery and treatment capacity by more than 60 percent. As far as the courts go, the drug, mental health and addictions and felony non-support courts are the main outlets dealing with heroin addicts, according to Powers.

Just in January the drug court had 28 people receiving what many are calling a miracle drug Vivitrol, which cancels out the high for 30 days and helps people on the road to recovery. The felony non-support court ordered the drug for eight people and mental health or SAMI Court had been using two other drugs but is switching to Vivitrol.

The shots cost between $800 and $1,000 and the local Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services Board provides $100,000 out of their state funding for drugs like Vivitrol. Powers said the heroin epidemic is worse than anything he has seen communities have to battle.

“This is the biggest problem we currently have and it’s been the biggest problem we’ve had in years,” he said. “Drug addiction has always been a problem for us. We went through the crack, a little bit through the Meth but we’ve never seen anything like heroin. There was a problem with heroin in the late 60s and early 70s but it wasn’t like it is now… This doesn’t show any signs of abating.”

Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor said a second summit will be held on June 23, when they will reconvene the groups from all 88 counties, but this time the focus will be on families. In the past two years child welfare removals due to substance abuse has increased 31 percent statewide. However, in Butler County that number has dropped from 60 percent to 56 percent.

The number of children in Butler County custody now stands at 421, down from about 460 a year ago. Children Services Executive Director Jerome Kearns attributes some of the drop to the change in the way they are doing business these days. The executive director announced a major overhaul a year ago, and they are now front loading services, such as treatment for heroin addiction, so removals aren’t always necessary.

O’Connor said she hopes Butler County officials will come to the summer summit to share their success story.

“If it’s caught early, it’s like any disease, if it’s caught early you hope you can nip it in the bud,” she said. “Sometimes the threat of having a family disrupted is enough to wake up someone, so they do respond to the treatment.”

Warren County is also on board with battling the epidemic, Common Pleas Court Judge Robert Peeler’s was the first court to use Vivitrol as part of the criminal sentencing process and now a major fund raising effort has helped provide for monitoring after treatment, so people don’t go astray.

Mason Vice Mayor Victor Kidd said 800 people attended a recent fund raiser that culled $250,000 to pay for two or three care coordinators — working through St. Aloysius — to keep tabs on recovering addicts. Fund raising is ongoing there.

Julie Payton, executive director of the Butler County ADAS board, said all of the efforts countywide are necessary, because they are fighting a very powerful force.

“This heroin problem is complex. People are willing to do and give up, sometime do horrendous things and compromising their values certainly,” she said. “Is there room for more coordination absolutely, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing that these separate groups are spread out in various aspects of the county. They are all focused on the same mission.”

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