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Grant County on deadly high

WORKING FOR OTHERS: Sean Broyles, a recovered addict, now works at the Grant County Rescue Mission and helps others in Grant County overcome addiction.

By Clay Winowiecki - cwinowiecki@chronicle-tribune.com

Of the 92 counties in Indiana, Grant County suffers premature deaths at a greater rate than all but two because we are killing ourselves with drugs.

Grant County’s fatal overdose rate is 42.1 per 100,000 people. That’s compared with the state’s average of 27, according to the Indiana State Department of Health figures from 2017.

Overdoses contributed to making unintentional injury Grant County’s third leading cause of premature death, according to Joe Hinton, researcher for the University of Wisconsin Population health Institution. 

According to Hinton, it’s a red flag.

Four out of the five top premature causes of death in Grant County are common in every county in the United States, healthy or not healthy. But one cause stands out.

“The one of most concern to me is unintentional injury,” Hinton said. “... We wouldn’t typically see that in the top five.”

Unintentional injury deaths include falling in the bathtub, dying in a car crash and, with great frequency, overdosing on opioids.

Grant County judges say they are working change the fatal outcomes for so many in the community.

Circuit Court Judge Mark Spitzer says illicit drug us is behind 80 to 90 percent of all the county’s crimes and crime is ramping up.

Last year, the county had more than 900 felonies filed, a record number, Spitzer said. More than 650 of those were level six felonies which are often drug-related.

Drug court sentencing, which focuses on recovery of the addict, began in 2005, Spitzer said. A decade before Indiana passed House Bill 1006, which aimed to help low-level offenders overcome substance abuse addictions.

New tools

According to Judge Jeffrey Todd of Grant County Superior Court I, the old way of dealing with substance abuse didn’t work.

“You took addicts, you put them in jail and when they came out they’re still addicts and maybe even better at being criminals,” Todd said. “We started utilizing evidence-based practices.”

In Family Recovery Court, engagement with families is often more beneficial than a weekend in jail, according to Superior Court II Judge Dana Kenworthy.

“Verbal praise is hugely appreciated by our folks,” Kenworthy said. “Many of our family’s are generational, meaning that they are parenting the way they were parented, so they don’t really have positive role models within their life (and) they don’t know another way.”

Another method is incentivization, such as “court cash” for exhibiting positive behaviors.

“Some of our participants are using that court cash to purchase gas cards so they can get to their appointments,” Kenworthy said. “But we’re not talking about large incentives, we’re talking about simple verbal praise and encouragement (utilizing a) token economy system.”

According to Todd, recidivism rates have reduced thanks to the change in low-level drug sentencing.

“We didn’t adopt these policies out of nowhere,” Todd added. “These are evidence-based. Research has been done to show this works. What I see in my court affirms what the research shows.”

Addiction still has a strong grip

But according to Evan Hammond, Grant County chief deputy prosecuting attorney, the drug problem remains out of control.

“Every day it seems like we have four or five new possession of syringe cases coming in,” Hammond said. “I don’t think we have as many heroin cases as we did but the methamphetamine problem has taken over.”

Bruce Elliott, head of the County Public Defender’s Office, says he’s seeing more young adults struggle with serious addictions.

“It used to be when I was a kid the risk taking was getting a six pack with your buddies and driving around or smoking pot,” Elliott said. “Well, now it’s turned to meth, pill popping.”

Elliott added that the county is still seeing older people stuggling with addictive behaviors.

According to former addict Sean Broyles, he started drinking occasionally and smoking marijuana at the age of 12, but he began a downward spiral decades later after his divorce.

“I was married for 20 years and got a divorce and I started drinking about six years ago,” Broyles said. “From then on everything started spiraling downward. I was doing other drugs on top of the drinking and I was blacking out and couldn’t remember what I’d done.”

Broyles began living from couch to couch and spent a stint of time getting kicked out of Cornerstone mental health facility and the Grant County Rescue Mission for sneaking in addictive substances.

After thinking he had burned his bridge, the Rescue Mission accepted him back on the condition he quit his job, which is how he funded his addictions and joined their “Life Change Program.”

“I knew if I stayed out there it would be a matter of time before I was dead,” he said.

Now Broyles is more than a year sober and works at the shelter full-time.

In-patients, not inmates

Locally, there are short-term rehab options the court refers addicts to, rather than sentencing them to jail.

According to Cindy McCoy, director of Correctional Services, the county referred about 200 addicts to Milestone Addiction Services last year.

Once Milestone receives a referral or a walk-in, the organization does an initial assessment an individual’s needs.

“Once we figure out where they need to go, the first step usually is outpatient (care),” said Dennis Allen, addictions program therapist with Milestone. “We have a plethora of programs we can offer.”

Programs seek to introduce clients to the recovery community in order to change the thinking behaviors. Later groups focus on teaching skills to deal with stress, relationships and cravings.

According to Allen, about 95 percent of Milestone’s client base comes from corrections, such as drug court, re-entry court, and probation.

Yet, one need the county has is an option for long-term rehabilitation.

“Our community desperately needs a longer-term residential (care),” McCoy said. “We use a lot of out of county (facilities), which means as they’re going through rehab they’re not connecting with local supports. Then they come back here and they may have the best intentions, but it’s very difficult when they haven’t established their recovery support network.”

According to Allen, addiction is a difficult disease because there are so many factors that play into its cause, such as genetics, trauma, education, poverty and neglect.

At Cornerstone Behavioral Health Center they offer opioid detox for up to seven days in their 16-bed inpatient unit, which is the only center of its kind in Grant and Blackford counties.

According to Michelina Burrows, clinical director of outpatient services, Cornerstone served about 773 clients in 2018 who had a primary diagnosis of substance abuse.

“We could be working with someone for three to six months,” Burrows said. “They’re working with the legal system, they’re working with treatment and they’re continuing to not progress so we come back to the table and say ‘Okay, what are we missing?’ We look at it further and find out maybe there was some mental illness that’s been hidden their whole lives.”

According to McCoy, there’s a high rate of relapse among those who struggle with addictions, but she doesn’t view those who do not complete rehab as failures.

“I look at it as if we’re planting the seeds,” she said. “We’re trying to grow recovery. Even when people quote ‘fail’ or go to prison, I don’t look at that as a failure because we haven’t seen the end yet.”

At Spitzer’s last several drug court graduations he has asked the crowd of about 200 people how many know someone who has overdosed.

“And 190 people raise their hand,” he said. “That’s the way the drug problem is affecting our community. This is a disease that does not discriminate on the basis of social status, race (or) where you live.”