Community responds to heroin crisis
Task force offers new solutions
By Angie Landsverk
Community members learned about efforts to combat issues related to heroin and other drugs during a Sept. 15 program at Waupaca High School.
The report shared the work of a task force that formed earlier this year and ended a week of programs for area communities.
The task force includes law enforcement, physicians, Probation and Parole, judges, Waupaca County’s Department of Health and Human Services, the school district and community members.
The county continues to discuss starting a drug court, and recovery coaches are available to guide those addicted to drugs or alcohol toward resources and assistance.
In the Waupaca County Department of Health and Human Services, a culture shift occurred during the last three years.
Director Chuck Price said they now ask “What’s happened to you?” instead of “What’s wrong with you?”
The department wants to provide a welcoming environment to all who visit it. All members of its staff are trained in Trauma-Informed Care and available to train others about it as well.
At ThedaCare Physicians-Waupaca, more than 20 people are now receiving monthly injections of Vivitrol.
Vivitrol removes the craving for opioids.
It was in the process of listening and being involved in the task force that physcians learned what part they could play.
Dr. Paul Sletten said there is that moment when an addict wants to stop using but if there is no help, that moment goes away.
A number of people who spoke last week commented on the changes they have witnessed in the community during the past 20 to 30 years.
Brian Hoelzel, Waupaca’s interim police chief, began working here a little over 20 years ago.
“I never thought, 22 1/2 years later, I’d be standing up here talking about a drug problem,” he said. “We started hearing about problems with heroin in other communities. Then – bang – it was here.”
Hoelzel said law enforcement has focused on arresting drug addicts and putting them in jail.
“When they were in there, they would talk about how they got hooked,” he said. “Everyone we talked to never thought they would be the person shoving a needle into their arm.”
People wanted help, but did not have the resources they needed, he said.
Waupaca’s Community Health Action recognized the need, and work began this year to form a task force.
Amanda Ayala works in the Wisconsin Department of Corrections Probation and Parole office in Waupaca.
She said about 30 percent of the clients have convictions related to drugs.
In many instances, the people resorted to crime to feed their addictions, she said.
Those sent to prison for using drugs often return to dealing or using upon their release.
“The cycle keeps going over and over until the Department of Corrections, as well as this county, recognized it’s not working,” Ayala said.
She asked the community to back, help and assist the work of the task force as it seeks to create a drug court.
Judge Ray Huber and Judge Vicki Clussman also spoke about the idea of starting a drug court in the county.
Huber, a lifelong Waupaca County resident, has worked in law enforcement 34 years, with the last 16 of those years as a circuit court judge.
“About five to six years ago, I started seeing something different. I had people coming to court dealing with the heroin issue,” he said. “It was inconsistent with the behavior I saw in the past. They would leave their babies alone or take their babies along to make a drug deal.”
Sending people to prison has not solved the problem, Huber said of incidents related to heroin.
Earlier last week, he dealt with a high school graduate who had a job and became addicted to pain medication and then heroin after knee surgery.
The person ended up losing his job, home and significant other, Huber said.
“The guy was not a criminal until he got addicted and couldn’t deal with the addiction,” he said.
During the 35 years Maureen Markon has worked for the Waupaca School District, she said she has seen a tremendous change in the students and the challenges the district faces due to children coming from homes where parents are using heroin.
Markon, the district’s director of pupil services, said in the last five years, the district has seen an increase in behavioral and mental health issues and students arriving at school late.
“They are tired, concerned about what is going on at home,” she said.
Markon said the students want to keep the home situations secretive and are “embarassed to see their parents’ pictures and names in the paper.”
Clussman said Waupaca County has not accomplished a drug court yet but is making “some great strides” in accomplishing one.
She said the heroin task force is looking at ways to stop the cycle of recidivism.
Drug court is one of them.
“Some communities are reporting 75 to 80 percent success rates,” Clussman said.
Several people in long-term recovery shared their stories as well.
They said addiction is a disease and they take one day at a time.
Huber said it will cost at least $130,000 for the first year of operating a drug court.
The county’s Finance Committee will be considering it at a future time, and he encouraged those in attendance to contact their representatives on the county board.
“Yeah, it’s going to cost a lot of money. None of these programs are cheap,” Huber said. “Drug court is one small part of it.”
He said an integrative approach is needed, including physicians being more careful about prescribing opioids and education in school.