Becky Savage stood in front of a screen displaying the beaming faces of her two sons Nick and Jack as she recounted the day in June 2015 that changed her life.
“I am a nurse and I am trained in saving people’s lives. That day, I could not perform my job as nurse, and I could not perform my job as a mom,” Savage recently told a room full of parents at St. Joseph High School.
Savage shared her story of immense loss: Her sons Nick and Jack died of an accidental drug overdose after attending a high school graduation party in Granger, Indiana, on June 14, 2015. The brothers had consumed a combination of alcohol and prescription painkiller oxycodone on the night they died.
The pair of hockey players were “smart kids with bright futures,” Savage said. And with one bad decision, her sons went from college kids to adding two more to the growing count of opiate-related deaths recorded both locally and nationwide.
America’s drug problem has been called an epidemic on the covers of national magazines and in local anti-drug forums such as the one Savage spoke at in April. St. Joseph County in Indiana has been no exception.
In 2015, deaths from overdoses in St. Joseph County reached 59, which outnumbered total deaths from homicides and fatal car crashes combined. That number has more than doubled since 2012, when 26 overdose fatalities were reported.
What is being done about it?
The St. Joseph County Drug Investigations Unit (DIU) was formed in January 2016 to address this rising drug epidemic. The DIU, led by Commander Dave Wells, is focused primarily on overdose fatalities and armed drug traffickers. The unit has been fully staffed and running since March 2016.
“Last year we had 58 deaths compared to 59 deaths, which is not a big change,” Wells said. “I’d like to see that down to zero.”
The DIU’s duty is not only to investigate, but to also inform and educate the public by talking to schools and parents about prescription drugs and signs of abuse.
St. Joseph County tallied 58 deaths due to drug overdoses in 2016, one less than in 2015. Of that number, 39.65 percent were caused by heroin overdoses, nearly ten percent less than the year before.
According to St. Joseph County Deputy Prosecutor Amy Cressy, South Bend drug dealers are increasingly turning to heroin because of accessibility and lower prices.
“We’re close to Chicago. We’re not that far from Detroit. People are coming up from Atlanta. We’re a hub city,” Cressy said. “And we’re a source for smaller communities. They trip up to South Bend to get heroin.”
But work has suggested that opioids in general are the biggest problem.
“Leaving a bottle of oxycodone, or a powerful painkiller, let’s say you had a surgery or something,” Wells said. “It’s just like leaving a loaded gun in your house.”
The DIU was specifically designed to handle the opioid epidemic in St. Joseph County, Wells said. The DIU’s goal is to target the people who deal those drugs and feed people’s addictions.
As drug abuse increases in St. Joseph County, treatment facilities are experiencing a significant increase in referrals and people being admitted into treatment, according to Kristin Tawadros, a psychologist at Oaklawn Psychiatric Center in South Bend.
“The legal system in South Bend is working on rehabilitation and not incarceration,” Tawadros said. “They want to avoid incarceration as much as possible and refer people to treatment instead.”
But facilities like Oaklawn lack the resources and funding to accommodate for the increasing number of referrals, said Tawadros.
“We can’t arrest our way out of all this. There’s people that obviously need therapy and need help with that,” Wells said. “Most people who use heroin, who use drugs are not typical criminals, they’re addicts.
“Education is the key. Right from the start. Getting to our kids.” As part of his role with the DIU, Wells speaks on the subject of drug abuse in the community as much as possible.
“I always say, we have a PowerPoint, we’ll travel. If you want us to come and do a presentation for your school, we’d love to come talk to your kids,” he said.
Wells and Cressy spoke following Savage’s story at Saint Joseph High School as part of one of their educational outreach events.
All three speakers drove home the same imperative message that necessary information about drugs and addiction must be shared and discussed.
“Have those conversations with your kids,” Savage said. “And have them again and again and again. You may annoy them, but that is far better than losing them forever.”