NORTH WEBSTER — The North Webster Community Center hosted “Opioid Crisis: A Community Call to Action,” Thursday, Feb. 22, the second in a series of six public gatherings held around Kosciusko County to bring greater community awareness to the opioid epidemic.
Thursday’s meeting focused on the epidemic’s effects on families, a subject often evoking tearfully emotional responses from audience members and speakers alike, as they heard from a panel of experts composed of health care professionals, law enforcement officers, the mother of a son in treatment and a woman currently living in recovery.
Dr. Joe Graham, director of the Grace College Health Center and a professor in its behavioral science department, served as moderator for an evening dealing with a subject that has, he said, “touched all of our lives.” Graham encouraged the audience to interact with the many tables representing a range of organizations, including CASA, Rose Home North, Baker Youth Club, Ryan’s Place, United Way, Bowen Center, Sound Recovery and more. “This is where change starts,” he stated.
Andy Boutz of Turning Point Counseling Center in North Webster was the first to speak. He likened the community to a family and encouraged business leaders to take a chance on people with felonies and drug issues. “Employ these people; invest in them,” he exhorted.
Boutz also stressed the importance of not turning away from the “messiness” of addiction, a word echoed throughout the evening. And like Ken Locke of the Warsaw Salvation Army, a later speaker, Boutz evoked Jesus Christ who, he reminded listeners, worked with “messy, dirty people.” He also challenged the church community to “get out of your building.” Similarly, Locke commented it was time for Christians to “put your Christ on” to help those struggling with addiction.
Rick and Jamie DeBoest offered their own insights into the crisis through their experience as foster parents for over three years. “The work is messy,” Jamie reiterated, adding, “The mess is cute,” referring to the children, including drug exposed infants, introduced into their family. Foster parents, she noted, are the ones tasked with helping clean up the mess, which is often exacerbated by the children’s parents who are “not heartbroken enough to get help,” as a result of their drug dependence.
In spite of the suffering and heartbreak the DeBoest’s have endured, they agreed being foster parents was “the best thing we’ve done so far,” and encouraged others to open their homes to these children. Not only is it “so worthwhile,” said Jamie, but they could provide some relief to other foster homes, while at the same time getting “the best moments in their lives.”
Lindsay Castro, director of Kosciusko County Department of Child Services, provided statistics illuminating the role drug abuse plays in the separation of children from their parents. 141 children composing 82 cases are currently in a DCS placement, and 57 of those cases involve addiction or drug use in some way. Among those are 21 drug exposed infants.
Castro also discussed recidivism, an unfortunate player in the dynamic, making the support system for those in recovery such an important factor in reuniting families. “Children do better with their families,” she stated, “We try to get them home as soon as we can.”
“No one sets out to be an addict,” emphasized Christina Bolden of the Bowen Center, who specializes in teens and addiction. She described “kids running from pain” who often turn to opiates. The role abuse and neglect plays in the opiate epidemic was central to her talk, and her voice broke as she related how adults trying to get sober are often subjected to flashbacks of abuse, only compounding their struggle. “I can’t tell you the horrors I’ve seen in my office,” she said.
This is just part of the “vicious cycle” she described. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2016, 84 scripts for pain medication were going out for every 100 Indiana residents, actually down from the 112 scripts per 100 residents going out in the preceding years, an “insane amount of prescriptions,” Bolden commented. The “top ways” people acquire opiates, she said, is from family and relatives, doctors and stealing from family and relatives. With the number of scripts now being cut so precipitously, to the point where even some with “actual physical needs” cannot get them, many are turning to street drugs such as heroin, increasingly being cut with fentanyl, a primary cause of overdose deaths.
For Bolden, medically assisted treatment, such as methadone or suboxone, combined with counseling is a crucial part of the solution to the epidemic. “It’s a real struggle,” she stressed and the general public often does not understand it is unrealistic to ask these often traumatized individuals to “suddenly be sober.” Bolden also called for the community to be “more compassionate” and look not only at behavior, but also the pain.
Courtney Jenkins described in detail the pain of watching her son, who was nearly an eagle scout, abuse drugs, starting with marijuana, which he was also dealing, and moving on to meth and heroin. Desperate and fearing for his life, Jenkins contacted narcotics detectives and provided them with the contacts from his cell phone.
“The times I slept best were the times I knew he was in jail, because I knew where he was and that he would be safe,” she said.
Jenkins is now helping others as a Smart Recovery facilitator. “There’s not one fix for everyone,” she commented.
Conversely, Shasta Ashpole, who referred to herself as a “recovering addict,” realized her mother was facilitating her addiction. “You can love an addict to death,” she said, and described how paying someone’s bills, for instance, can enable their drug use. In her quest for sobriety she has even had to separate herself from her own mother.
In a nod to Jamie DeBoest’s disbelief that an addict could love drugs more than their own child, Ashpole, in one of the most emotionally wrenching moments of the evening, confessed the immediate physical need for opiates did indeed overshadow her love for her daughter at times.
However, she said, “Now, years later I have my daughter.” Ashpole thanked the audience, saying they were “brave to care.” She received a standing ovation.
Following the speakers, Mary Gerard of the Bowen Center, one of the event’s organizers, described how, in 2010, the community came together to battle the meth problem. “We have to do something about this,” she repeated, insisting the phrase now applies to the opiate epidemic; however, she said, “We can’t be one and done … what do we do after?”
Gerard encouraged everyone to get involved in some way to help fight the opioid crisis. A list of 50 things “you can do about the opioid crisis in Kosciusko County” was provided and she called for attendees to pick as many or as few as they wanted.
The third meeting in a series of six will be held in May in a location yet to be determined. It will move the discussion from drugs in the family to drugs in the streets, said Ron Ousley of A Bridge to Hope, which is offering free recovery coach training.
For more information, contact “A Bridge to Hope” at (574) 377-9965, or visit the website at www.abridgetohope.org