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Community Efforts

Five groups successfully fighting addiction in Newark, Ohio, that could serve as a model for others around the country.
Newark, Ohio, September 5th, 2018: Nurse Mary Beth Hagstad holds a naloxone kit in her office at the Licking County Health Department.

Nurse Mary Beth Hagstad holds a naloxone kit in her office at the Licking County Health Department.

A version of this story originally appeared in the December/January 2019 issue of Pacific Standard as a sidebar to "Endless Addiction."


Police Departments

Newark Police Chief Barry Connell knows that addiction can be a personal issue for many people, that everyone has a story. He has one too. His story started about 30 years ago on the eastern shore of Maryland, when he cosigned a business loan for his brother-in-law, who then used the loan to start a crabbing business. His first year out, he had a banner season.

Connell says that financial windfall took his brother-in-law, then still in high school, down the road to addiction. He partied. He was exposed to drugs. A star basketball player with plans to go to college transformed into a user who struggled with addiction for the next few decades.

Connell says he feels like he helped finance that use. "I was deeply affected by watching him all those years," he says. "I can't write him off. I can't say: 'Oh, he's just an addict. He's just a junkie.' I know him. I love him."

That's why, in Newark, a user may walk into the police department and seek help. After a brief intake process, a community initiatives officer or volunteer begins the process of finding a detox placement and, hopefully, a more long-term rehab program. So far, the program has served 131 people.

The Newark Addiction Recovery Initiative is modeled on a similar program in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and supported by a national network of police departments that are trying the same thing to varying degrees. It's a harm-reduction approach that is accepted by many in the Newark community—a politically red city in a red county.

Participants must turn over any drugs or paraphernalia they are carrying. Those with outstanding warrants, who are sex offenders, or who are under 18 and lack parental consent, are ineligible. If they want to back out at any point, Connell says, they may. Initially, the program was intended to serve just those addicted to opioids, but Connell says they are trying to get the word out to those addicted to meth as well.

Some participants have Medicaid, a few have private insurance, and others have nothing. For them, scholarships are available through partnering rehabilitation facilities.

Connell admits that substance abuse disorders are best handled by specialists. At this point, he says, police know "just enough to get us in trouble." His officers are learning as they go, figuring out how to help people whose abuse masks other, often more complicated, concerns.

Probation Mentors

People often exit jail or prison without a support network. Whitney Babbert, a probation officer with Licking County Adult Court Services, is trying to change that. She would like everyone under her charge to be welcomed by mentors as soon as they walk through the gate.

In many cases, Babbert says, she is the only support system for her clients. Some people battling addictions have frustrated their families to the point that they have turned their backs on them.

Over the past year, she has hatched a plan: training men and women ending probation to act as mentors and allies to those who are just starting out. "It's structured like NA/AA sponsorship," she says, "only it's not just for sobriety; it's for all of life's barriers."

Mentors will help clients access resources to address issues like housing, child custody, mental health, and addiction, and help them navigate the bureaucracies and lend a hand if they slip.

When people leave the jail, Babbert says, "they can either go left or right. They can go left and come here or go right and then across the street straight to the trap houses. [Imagine] if we have someone there to block that and say: 'Hey, you're going to be court-ordered to a lot of things. The court is making you jump through hoops like crazy. I've been there. Let me help you figure out what services are available.'"

Health Departments

One of the best interventions for preventing opioid overdose deaths is access to naloxone (or Narcan), a medication that reverses or slows down an overdose by blocking the effects of opioids on the brain and restoring breathing. It is available over the counter at many pharmacies in Ohio, but, in Licking County, it is also distributed by the county health department for free.

Licking County began distributing the medication in June of 2016, after receiving a grant from the state called Project DAWN (Deaths Avoided With Naloxone), which allowed the health department to implement a community-based drug overdose education and naloxone distribution program. The department has hosted dozens of opioid overdose training workshops—at its offices, the county library, schools, social service agencies, and a local ice cream factory—and has distributed over 500 naloxone kits.

Workshop participants learn how to recognize the signs of an overdose, how to perform rescue breathing, and how to administer naloxone. The events are free to attend, and participants walk away with their own naloxone kits.

Public-health nurse Mary Beth Hagstad says she knows there was some hostility toward the program on social media, but so far people are appreciative of having greater access to the drug. They want it, she says, because a family member or someone they work with is using. "They're excited to have access," she says. "I've had a dad and mother come in almost in tears because they're grateful."

But the health department also wants to reach people who cannot attend or who do not wish to be seen attending such events, so now it is also offering the training online for county residents in a first-of-its-kind program in Ohio. Participants must complete online training before having the kit mailed to them, and Hagstad is on call to answer questions about the drug.

Activist Parents

About 10 years ago, when Patricia Perry first learned that her son Billy had a substance abuse disorder, she felt desperately alone. She couldn't find a support group and knew very little about treatment options, and even less about the disease.

A lot has changed since then. She is now part of a growing network of parents and grandparents, siblings and friends, who have become activists in response to the addiction crisis. Perry serves as Licking County coordinator for OhioCAN, an organization that works to "empower those whose lives have been impacted by substance use."

The group has empowered Perry, who now sends cards to those in treatment or prison, and helps distribute dozens of bags each week full of personal hygiene products (called "U Can Bags") to those who need them. Perry also runs a homeless outreach program with friend Jen Kanagy, handing out food and clothing to between 50 and 75 people every Saturday. This outreach helps her get to know users and to connect them to resources—work that is deeply personal to her given that, for many years, she says, Billy was homeless. In the future she hopes this project can be a conduit for harm-reduction services by exchanging syringes and giving out Narcan and fentanyl testing strips.

Perry says she finally feels a sense of purpose that she didn't have 10 years ago. Helping those struggling with addiction is now her life's work. She wakes up most days before dawn to check her email, to organize her work for OhioCAN, to write cards, and to read up on addiction and pending legislation. In the past year, she has hosted three Narcan trainings, spoken to two Ohio House committees, and organized an awareness rally in Newark.

Perry does all this while keeping an eye out for her son, who is currently in treatment. He still struggles, but now Perry knows she's not alone in the fight to support him.

Quick Response Teams

In the past in Licking County, as in most places, there has been little follow-up after a non-fatal overdose. That is changing. Now, the Licking County Quick Response Team follows up with overdose victims 24 to 48 hours after the incident. It's a collaborative effort of local law enforcement and several mental-health, addiction, and poverty-focused organizations.

Currently, only law enforcement and the local hospital refer possible clients to partnering agencies who then alert the team, though anyone in the county can make a referral through the local 211 hotline. They've also recently begun providing some limited on-call hours during peak times for the hospital so the QRT can respond immediately in the emergency room to offer resources and support to an individual who has just overdosed. The team coordinates with law enforcement for an initial outreach. And, according to Tara Schultz, clinical director of the Mental Health and Recovery Board for Licking and Knox Counties, peer support is a central component to the team and to this initial contact.

Schultz says the QRT offers "a safety net for people wavering on going to treatment or not." There's no time limit for how long they can offer a client support, but if a client enters treatment, the QRT will continue to offer support for at least the next six months.

The QRT responds to non-fatal overdoses and, because the project is supported by federal funding from the opioid-specific 21st Century Cures Act, it can only track people with opioid use disorder, not problems with other substances. "It's frustrating for me," Schultz says. "But it provides us an avenue for connecting and collecting information."

She hopes that the QRT can leverage what it is learning now to create better systems for working with people suffering from addiction, regardless of their drug of choice.