Saturday, April 9, 2016
Danni's Ripple Effect: Elk County Sheriff Testifies About Heroin Use
Heroin use is an epidemic without borders. It crosses genders, socio-economic classes and races. So it only proves to reason that a solution to help combat this growing epidemic would have no borders.
“The problem doesn’t stop at the borders,” said W. Todd Caltagarone, Elk County sheriff and former City of St. Marys Police chief. “At the very least, law enforcement must attack the problem from a regional perspective with a view of the broader context concerning the problem.”
Caltagarone was one of 16 people who testified at the Center for Rural Pennsylvania’s hearing on Friday at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford. The hearing, the first one of this year, centered on the heroin epidemic in rural Pennsylvania. This was also the first hearing held in the most rural location.
As with it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a regional effort to combat substance abuse.
“We gain little by each organization working within its own silo.”
Caltagarone suggested an approach like the Multi-Disciplinary Teams formed to examine and evaluate child abuse cases.
“Utilizing this model, representatives from multiple disciplines can be brought to the table and cases can be individualized and manage on a county level.
Since opioid and heroin abuse affects all areas of social strata, a regional approach is necessary, he said.
Strain on Law Enforcement
In a rural county such as Elk County, Pa., members of law enforcement are doing their best to fight drugs in the community, but they are often stretched financially, personally and professionally.
Caltagarone said in the City of St. Marys, 14 officers in his area protect almost 100 square miles. Each of these officers is assigned drug investigations, but only three are trained in that specialty.
“Fifty percent of their caseloads are comprised of drug investigations and show no sign of lessening.”
Much of their time investigating is done outside of their regular shifts and time away from their families.
Economic Highs and Lows
Heroin is often the drug most addicts turn to because it is relatively inexpensive. But the matter can be rather costly to the community waging a battle against it.
“Without funding from the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office to regional drug task forces, we would never be able to meet the crisis before us.”
A funding streams needs to continue to flow in order to ebb the tide of heroin.
“Law enforcement cannot completely eradicate the problem, but with continued funding, we can restrain, repel, contain, push back and mitigate the epidemic.
The illegal drug activity has dire consequences on the community.
“(It) has a significant impact on communities in terms of increased criminal activity, the social fabric and the quality of life of our citizens.”
The funding needs don’t stop there.
“Equally important is prevention and education. This area can realize a greater return on investment in terms of financial and other resources.”
But once a person is incarcerated, their medical burdens fall on the taxpayer and when they are release the strain is transferred to the health care industry.
The road to heroin use often starts with prescription opioid use for pain management, Caltagarone said.
“Chronic pain or perhaps an invasive medical procedure often leads to a prescription for pain medication,” he said, citing scripts for Vicodin or OxyContin.
“When a prescription refill ends, the individual seeks out other sources and substances to deal with the physical pain. The problem of addiction, however, remains.”
Caltagarone said a person may experience many overdoses as they try to satisfy their addiction or manage their pain.
While the addict and the family tries to seek treatment, many times it’s for naught as either no bed is available at a treatment facility or a bed may be available, but the facility is far away from home and, ultimately, the addict’s support system.
Attaining a sober life is still out of reach.
“They experience relapse after relapse – returning to using at the same dosage level that they no longer have tolerance for.
“The result is an overdose.”
Sometimes the overdose is witnessed by others and help comes in time. That, however, is not a safe bet when gambling with heroin.
“The cycle continues until that day when the event is not witnessed or they are not found in time.
The consequences are tragic.”
“It is absolutely essential that our physicians and pain management specialists fully conceptualize the depth of the problem as well as the potential for abuse and complications when dispensing opioid pain medications.
“Those complications typically involve criminal activity, family problems, unemployment and anti-social behavior.”
A Deadly Choice
As the heroin epidemic spreads throughout the United States, it has become apparent that the Keystone State is swept up in the problem. Pennsylvania ranks third in the country for heroin use.
Elk County, at a population of just shy of 31,200, is much like other counties throughout Pennsylvania and is not immune to the heroin epidemic, particularly the deadly side of the illegal drug.
Elk County is ranked seventh in the state for drug-related overdose deaths per 100,000 people, according to Pennsylvania Coroner Data. According to the report, Elk County recorded 26.65 deaths. McKean County ranked No. 32 with 14.10 drug-related deaths. Cameron and Potter counties did not record any drug related deaths, according to the report.
Heroin is the drug of choice for Elk County, as it is with a majority of the counties throughout the state.