From Heroin to Hope: The biggest heroes, the tiniest victims

Published: Feb. 23, 2017 at 1:49 PM EST
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The front line in the war on heroin is not a pretty place. There are shattered lives, broken dreams, despair, poverty, addicted babies, and the constant danger the drug trade presents. Yet, everyday people like Lucas County Sheriff’s DART Officers Robert Chromik and Joe Navarre, Zepf Center CEO Jennifer Moses, and Lucas County Children Services Executive Director Robin Reese show up for work ready to change and even save lives.

“We are in crisis, we are absolutely in crisis,” says Reese.

The number of children left without parents in our region is skyrocketing because of the heroin and opioid epidemic.

“In 59 percent of our cases, the presenting problem was drugs,” Reese said describing the situation her agency faces. “In 79 percent of those cases involved opiates or heroin.”

That means there is an overwhelming need for foster parents.

“We have a record number of kids coming into care. And not only are they coming into our custody, but they are staying longer.”

That is why Lucas County Children Services is actively looking for foster parents. If you would like more information on how to become a foster parent, the LCCS Hotline is (419) 213-3336.

“When these children come into care and they’ve suffered the kind of trauma that we’re seeing, foster parents can provide the kind of love and care to balance off the trauma. They can build confidence in children,” said Reese, emphatic about the need. “We do not want to lose a generation of children.”

While the epidemic is splitting families and leaving children without parents, there are also babies who are born addicts. They are the newborns of mothers who took heroin and other opioids during pregnancy.

“Ten years ago we may have had maybe one or two babies admitted,” Mischel Balazs or Promedica Toledo Children’s Hospital told us. “Now, we’re in the hundred.”

Those babies face the same physical issues that grown addicts going through withdrawal do. They shake uncontrollably, they feel pain, they are nauseous, and they have fitful, infrequent sleep.

There are many heroes on the front line against the epidemic, including foster parents who care for drug-addicted infants. They see the problem up close, and the victims they care for are completely innocent. Because of the intensity of care, they can usually only handle one baby at a time.

“They constantly shake and cry,” says foster mom Kimberly Cundick. “22 hours of crying, 15 minute increments of sleeping, but they do get better.”

And that is the payoff for Cundick. She can see the results, and realize the joy of nursing a baby back to health. The child she was fostering during our interview came to her as an addicted newborn, but at four months old had made great strides in recovery, and was doing well.

The epidemic has forced police to take a creative approach.

“We are not going to arrest our way out of this,” Lucas County Sheriff John Tharp said. “We can put them in jail and as soon as they get out they’ll use again.”

So, Tharp created the Drug Abuse Response Team, or DART. Instead of just locking up heroin and opioid users, the team gets them into counseling and treatment. They keep in contact with addicts, track them, and try to keep them on the path to recovery. The approach is working. DART has an 80% success rate in rehabilitating addicts.

“We have more knowledge of what’s going to go in the court system,” says DART Lt. Robert Chromik. “We work with prosecutors to make recommendations, and we talk and follow.”

DART Officer Joe Navarre is also on the front lines. He deals with recovering addicts every day. It may feel thankless, but the DART approach is turning lives around.

A woman named Tiffany is in the DART program. She says of Navarre: “He’s the one person who hasn’t given up on me, but I’ve let him down tremendously.”

“We know she’s worth more to this community than some people realize,” counters Navarre.

The Zepf Center provides counseling and mental health services, including treatment for opioid abuse. Jennifer Moses is the CEO, but when you get down to it, her job is fixing broken lives. She says treatment resources need to be expanded because the crisis is growing.

“We’ve grown substantially over the years, and that’s unfortunate. When, you know, my friends or peers say wow, you guys are doing great, that’s not necessarily a good thing,” Moses tells us. “That means there’s a lot of sick people in our community. So, my goal at the end of the day is to make us smaller because we want people to get better and not need our services.”

While the legal system is important in combating opioid abuse, Moses says it is treatment that will eventually win the day because addiction is a health problem: “It’s no different than cancer or diabetes. You know we have to address all of those issues of the individual and help them get better.”

You can see the complete stories of these heroes in the war on opioid abuse in a 13abc Action News special, “From Heroin to Hope” tonight at 7:00.