Addressing the Drug Epidemic in St. Joseph County

In the face of growing drug use and abuse, law enforcement primes to fight back

Savage, Tawadros, Cressy and Wells speak to parents in the South Bend community. (Photo by Teagan Dillon)

By Teagan Dillon and Joe DiSipio


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” said Savage. And with one bad decision Becky Savage’s 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.

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 the that number, 39.65 percent were caused by heroin overdoses, nearly ten percent less than the year before.

Click here for the interactive version of the map.

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 pain killer, 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.”

 


Learn more about the history of drug prevention in Indiana and share your own experiences and suggestions using the #chooseprevention hashtag.

Notre Dame Takes Year Off from Shamrock Series

The Shamrock Series started in 2009 at the Alamo Dome and became a unique way for Notre Dame to reach its fans across the country. With interesting venues and special uniforms, the Shamrock Series has been a success since the beginning.

In 2007, the Irish are taking a break from the Shamrock Series to add an extra home game following the completion of the Campus Crossroads project. The following video is a tour of the previous eight Shamrock Series locations.

Notre Dame Hockey Sees Lowest Attendance in 6 Seasons

Notre Dame hockey’s regular-season average attendance hit its lowest point since the opening of the Compton Family Ice Arena in October 2011.

Despite the low turnout, the program is having one of its most successful seasons in years. The fourth-seeded Irish topped both the University of Minnesota and second-seeded UMass Lowell to head to the Frozen Four on Thursday, April 6, for the first time since 2011 and the third time in program history.

The following chart tracks the average attendance since the opening of the Compton Family Ice Arena six seasons ago.

CDC Report: America’s 10 Cities Dealing with a Drinking Problem

The following link is a StoryMap that provides information on data used to rank U.S. cities by their “drunkenness.” The data was provided by a Centers for Disease Control study on alcohol that ranked the cities based on liver disease, DUI arrests, etc.

https://uploads.knightlab.com/storymapjs/25e47e9bf0b863d75f16e319cb1d472f/americas-10-cities-dealing-with-a-drinking-problem/index.html

Map by Teagan Dillon