A Small Town's Answer to the Opioid Epidemic is Actually Working
"We want our town back."
Read the rest of Tonic's opioid coverage here.
Judge Jeffrey Benson has only been a probate juvenile judge in Ross County for two years, but with a 33-year career as a trial lawyer prior, you could say he's seen it all. The spike in opioid usage in Ohio has reached epidemic proportions, and his county is among the most affected. (Ohio recently became the most recent on a list of states that have sued drug makers for misleading doctors and their patients about the risk of addiction and overdoses via marketing campaigns.) And while there have been cuts in Child and Family Services across the state in recent years, Ross County is the poorest district, with the fewest resources to combat the crisis.
The quaint town of Chillicothe is where Benson was born and raised, and where he works at the courthouse every day. With a population of about 20,000, from birds eye view, the place is idyllic. It was the first capital of Ohio, and a stop on the underground railroad. He calls it a "community that cares," a real family-oriented kind of town. Tree-lined streets, steepled churches, there's even a Chillicothe Shade Tree Commission, designed to protect the flora native to the area. But Benson says contemporary Chillicothe is worlds away from the town he was born and raised in.
"For many years, most people wouldn't lock their doors—it was that kind of community. With the heroin epidemic, that has changed. There's lot more crime, we are locking our doors,' Benson laments. "I have never owned a gun before, but now I am going to buy one."
Benson's focus as a judge is on cases related to child abuse, neglect and dependency. He estimates that 75 to 80 percent of the cases are drug-related, where child services has stepped in to remove children from a family because of a problem. He says what's most surprising to him is that there isn't a demographic the drug crisis hasn't reached. "Families from all parts of town, all races, all economic positions. There seems to be a hopelessness about it," he says.
When asked about the toughest cases, he seemed to have an answer waiting on the tip of his tongue. "I have seen a lot in 33 years. A lady in June of 2016, she was prostituting herself to support her heroin addiction. As she was in the act of prostituting herself, she had a baby. The man called 911 and said, Hey this woman had a baby. She is bleeding, the baby is bleeding. They go to the hospital and three hours later the mother leaves and never comes back. I can't imagine someone being that cruel; to ingest drugs while you are pregnant, and then leave your child and never come back. I hope that child never finds out how she came into this world."
While there has been a slow increase in the death toll in recent years, last year that number spiked: 44 deaths on record due to heroin, and overdoses at a record high. All that is undoubtedly compounded by a lack of government resources to address the impact of heroin or strategize ways to end usage.
In response to funding and support from the government, various members of the community have decided to find ways to fill the gaps at the ground level. The approaches are nothing if not creative. Gary Von Kennel, a former CEO of Omnicom and a Chillicothe High School alumni, created a program that rewards students who can keep a 2.0 GPA and are willing to get randomly drug tested—with prizes ranging from iPads to a brand new car. Von Kennel is giving $10,000 a year to propel the program. There are six other high schools in the county, all with similar programs incentivizing kids to not become part of the statistical landscape that opioids have created. " I hadn't lived in Chillicothe for years, but I turned on the TV one night and saw CNN calling my hometown a drug-infested place with serial killers, and I felt like I had to do something," Von Kennel says. He connected with an Ohio Congressman to get exposure, and partnered with the superintendent of the school district to get the program off the ground.
In the first year, about 100 juniors and seniors participated, with three dropping out after failing the drug test. This year, 419 students are participating from all grades. "It's good progress, but there's still a lot of work," Von Kennel says. "I thought I'd do this program, come back to town and they'd throw a big dinner and I'd go home. But I'm in over my head. Disastrous doesn't begin to describe the problem. This town used to be a movie set, now it's beat up."
Another alum named Lisa Morgan learned about the grassroots efforts in her hometown and started a GoFundMe page. She got more than $5,000 donated by the class of 1986. She is donating the money to the Keys to Success Program for college scholarship, earned by a graduating senior who plays by the rules their last year and stays clean and out of trouble.
Debbie Bettendorf, a parent who helps facilitate the program says, "No one in my family has been affected, but there have been people in my neighborhood who I have known my whole life, they aren't the same anymore. We want our town back, I want to raise my kids in the town I was raised in. We have issues here but we are doing whatever we can."
Even former addicts themselves are getting involved. Cheryl Beverly was convicted of trafficking cocaine and heroin in 1996, and after three years on the run with her children in tow, she came back to serve her time. Since then, she's helped over 100 women in Ross County get clean and opened a haven for their recovery called Cheryl's House of Hope in 2015. She houses five to ten women at a time there. "We got an actual house donated, and a van too," she says. "I take the women to do everything, from getting to work to visiting their families. They are regaining that network of support." Thanks to a grant, the house is cost-free to those in recovery. She also teaches the women how to use their food stamps and shop on a budget: "Most of them don't know how, since their dealers would take the food stamps from them."
She focuses her efforts on the east end of town, where she also works as a substitute cafeteria lunch lady. "I know that's where a lot of these ladies overdose. I know it's bad because the kids will ask for extra food when they come through my line," she says. "I give them the food, and other stuff, like toilet paper, too." While trying to help women in the community get back on track, she also struggles to keep her family clean. "Two of of my own kids, they are 14 and 15, got addicted to opiates—first Xanax and Percoset, then moved up to heroine. One son tried to kill himself by jumping off a bridge, the other got charged with narcotics. One son is now out of prison now; it's a struggle to make sure he's clean and sober. The other son is still in."
"I have been sober 17 years," Beverly says, "and it's still a process every day."
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