Heroin epidemic: Prevention, available treatment hot topics at public town hall meeting

20 HEROIN meeting Mayor West

Georgetown Mayor Bill West speaks at the recent town hall meeting on Delaware’s heroin epidemic.

GEORGETOWN — Overwhelming consensus from the audience is that Sussex County is not immune to the nationwide heroin epidemic.

Opinions differ on how to sever its source and confront addiction.

“We’ve got some problems in this county. We’ve got some problems in this town and in this community that need to be addressed,” said Georgetown Mayor Bill West.

Heroin was in the crosshairs of a Jan. 14 town hall community session that brought law enforcement, healthcare and school representatives, parents of addicts and concerned citizens to Delaware Technical Community College.

The meeting was facilitated by the Sussex County Action Prevention Coalition.

Panelists included Corey D. Handy Sr., Supervisory Special Agent for the U.S. Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA); Bridgette Buckaloo, Executive Director of Beebe Healthcare’s Women’s Health Service; Dupree Johnson of the Sussex County Action Prevention Coalition, Georgetown Police Chief R.L. Hughes and Mayor West.

Michael Barbieri, Director of the Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health for Delaware’s Department of Health and Social Services, Shawn Ellerman, a DEA Assistant Special Agent, and State Rep. Ruth Briggs King all spoke at the town hall session, attended by approximately three dozen people.

“Issues, we have them here on a smaller scale,” said Chief Hughes. “When it happens it touches every one of us.”

Big fish, little fish

In response to why police are not sweeping all of the low-level dealers off the streets, Mr. Handy said as a federal agency, the DEA commonly does not investigate lower levels. Given the scale of the epidemic, Mr. Handy said the DEA is now working more closely with state and local law enforcement.

“I understand what you’re saying. I am working collaboratively with local police departments,” said Mr. Handy, who worked previously as a narcotics detective for the city of Norfolk (Va.) following service in the U.S. Marine Corps. “I am excited to work with state and local police departments as well as the residents within the communities to combat this unfortunate epidemic that our country is experiencing.”

Mr. Ellerman confirmed the DEA’s revised focus.

“I hear what you’re saying. We are committed. We are going to go after some of them low people. We’re going to try,” said Mr. Ellerman. “I am going to get one of the worst ones. The worst one we will get. Don’t give up.”

Noting investigations and arrests take time, Chief Hughes referred to the U.S. Constitution and “probable cause.”

20 Heroin RL Hughes

Georgetown Police Chief R.L. Hughes responds to a question at the public town hall meeting addressing the heroin epidemic.

“There is this document in the U.S. and I think it’s a wonderful document,” he said. “We’ve got to have probable cause, developing a case. We should follow the rule book.  It takes time to build a case.”

Chief Hughes said building relationships within the community expands law enforcement’s eyes and ears to help identify and pinpoint areas of suspected illegal activity.

“Now, you are saying, ‘Oh, you want everybody to become an informant or to be a rat on somebody.’ We need to know. We need to listen and hear,” Chief Hughes said. “We have to get in the community … and build relationships so they want to become involved.”

“Arrest everybody is not the ultimate goal,” said Mayor West, who worked in narcotics investigation during his tenure with Delaware State Police. “When I worked narcotics I wanted to lock everybody up. They needed to be off the street. I see that in your eyes, but we’ve got a job to do and we’ve got to do it right.”

“I am happy to see the DEA becoming more involved. We had a conference in September about trafficking,” said Rep. Briggs King, adding that the “heroin grade that comes to Delaware is the cheapest. If New York wants to get rid of it, they send the trash heroin to Delaware. So we have more incidents of overdose problems.”

Problems start at home

Seeds of addiction in many cases are sewn in the home, said Mr. Ellerman.

“Really, where it starts is – and we hear this beat to death – is your home. It’s your medicine cabinet,” said Mr. Ellerman.

He noted the availability of Operation Drop Box and programs for safe disposal of prescription drugs no longer needed.

“It starts legal before it jumps to illegal,” said Mr. Ellerman

Drugs in schools?

The panel heard a comment claiming that drugs are being sold in bathrooms of schools.

Concerned citizen Staci Robinson, a nurse at Sussex Central High School, said a recent drug sweep at her school revealed no sign of drugs.

“They brought the dogs in about a month or so ago nothing was found. If there is heroin in our school those dogs would have found it,” said Ms. Robinson. “I am not making a case that our kids are angels, they are not. What I see as a greater problem in our schools is not so much the kids aren’t using it,  but their families are being affected because parents are using, their brothers are using, their sisters are using it.”

“The thing I find abhorrent about our county; where do you go if it is your family member? Where are services?” said Ms. Robinson, emphasizing she attended the meeting as a nurse and a concern citizen. “There are statistics out there miles long that will tell you if you get an addict sober, the only way they will stay that way is if they’re in an environment where people are willing to help them.”

Awareness, education, prevention

Getting to children before they get hooked is vital, panelists and speakers said.

“We are going to go to every school we can,” said Mr. Ellerman, “We don’t give up. We speak at treatment facilities. Is it all doom and gloom? Well, no.”

“It starts with education and prevention at the early ages,” said Mayor West. “If we don’t help get the kids looking in the right direction by the time they get to be adults they are going to be going in the wrong direction.”

“Treatment is very important. Equally so and maybe even more important is where do we start? With the children,” said Chief Hughes.

“We’ve got to start taking care of individuals and taking care of their families so the grandparents don’t have to be raising the family’s kids,” said Mayor West. “We need to know what you need out there and we need to know as a government and police, all we can do to help people.”

Mr. Barbieri added, “You could not arrest enough dealers to keep them off the street. Where there’s a will there’s a way; they’ll find it. So what we have to do is do this through prevention.”

“Prevention needs to be highlighted,” said Mr. Johnson. “Slowly, surely this country is losing the title of ‘Drug Free Community.’ It is because the prevention effort is not being taken seriously. You go to treatment and you come out, you’ve got to go back to prevention to prevent you from using again. This almost took my life.”

Lack of resources in Sussex

The majority of resources for addiction treatment are based upstate, in Kent and New Castle counties.

Efforts to provide services in Sussex have met resistance, Mr. Barbieri said.

“We get so much push back saying ‘not in my backyard. We want it in Sussex County but not here where I live.’ Reality is we have had more people push back everything we are trying to do. I would love to see more in Sussex County,” said Mr. Barbieri, adding there are efforts to actively try to “recruit providers to come to Sussex County. It’s a physician problem, it’s a facility problem it’s a manpower problem.”

Mr. Barbieri said the state is hoping to add 30 beds in Sussex County.

SUN Behavioral Health’s plan to build a 90-bed psychiatric hospital in Georgetown offers a greater ray of hope.

“That is going to be a great resource for us,” said Mayor West, saying he recently received two phone calls “from doctors that are looking to move to Georgetown.”

Newborns

Ms. Buckaloo presented statistical data showing a sharp increase in the number of babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome, due to mothers’ drug use.

In 2013, there were 19 babies born at Beebe with the diagnosis. It increased to 34 in 2014 and the number was more than 50-plus with 2015 not yet finalized.

“They are a vulnerable population,” said Ms. Buckaloo. “These babies are extremely vulnerable and they suffer from the same symptoms. Good news is the newborns are being very well taken care of. The bad news is that once they leave my facility I don’t know what happens to them.”

Ms. Buckaloo added that probably 90 mothers are in treatment. “At some point along the way they got that message,” she said.

Narcan Use

Questions were presented inquiring why all local police agencies do not carry Narcan (naloxone), a drug designed to reverse the deadly effects of opiate overdose.

Ocean View Police Department officers carry Narcan on patrol in first aid kits.

Chief Hughes said cost and short shelf life are factors, adding he believes the overdose-reversing drug is perhaps better suited for EMS and ambulance personnel.

An audience member from atTAcK Addiction informed the panel that naloxone can be obtained free, which Chief Hughes said he would check out.

In summation

“Let’s talk about this. Tell me the things I need to know. If we can stop somebody from putting a needle in their arm or having babies born that are substance abuse dependent … pray for those people who have fallen victim to addiction,” said Chief Hughes. “It happens to everyone.”

News Editor Glenn Rolfe can be reached at grolfe@newszap.com

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