DARA forum sheds light on underside of opioid epidemic in Montco

Judge Andrea Duffy started Drug Addiction Resource Alliance forums in 2016 to educate the public while saving lives.

Montgomery County Commissioner Ken Lawrence Jr. (left) takes a selfie with Richard Buttacavoli, Lori Schreiber, and Beth Staab.

LANSDALE – At 8:30pm last Tuesday, the auditorium of Trinity Lutheran Church in Lansdale was silent, save for slide of a zipper.

“There’s no do-overs when it comes to this,” stated Officer Deanna Rowe of the Philadelphia Police Department, slowly unfurling a body bag onto the floor. “This is where it ends.”

Rowe was speaking to a Drug Addiction Resource Alliance community forum as a representative of Heads Up, a PowerPoint presentation created to highlight the lesser-known consequences of substance abuse. Rowe covered every topic from alcohol-related car accidents to the chemical composition of vaping oil, placing extra emphasis on the increasing numbers of people robbed of their lives and potential by as little as three grains of fentanyl.

“That’s how much control drugs [have] over [people],” Rowe noted as pictures of overdose victims flashed across the screen, some with needles still clutched tightly in their hands.

It’s a cycle of abuse and control that Judge Andrea Duffy hopes to break.

Alexis Bamford
Judge Duffy (right) embraces Hope Stein. The two work together to send people directly from Duffy’s courtroom to rehabilitation.

“I started DARA in 2016 trying to bring together a collective of local resources to help get people into treatment right from my bench, rather than [having] those people who are in need of treatment going back on the streets or into jail. We’ve now flourished; I’m very proud to say now that this is our 10th public forum. We started these. . . so we could educate the public, help those who are in need of assistance, and also just show the community that these people need to be embraced and supported,” explained Duffy. “This is a disease; it is not a moral failing.”

For Beth Staab, a supervisor-elect for Montgomery Township, DARA is a lifeline for many of the constituents she serves.

“I know this community, and families in this community are really struggling – silently, in many cases. . .this is a situation where people need to know resources and they don’t know where to start. . . [families can] feel as if they have a friendly community surrounding them, and we can open our minds and our hearts to supporting those in need, rather than punishing people for something they can’t control.”

Recovery organizations, social services, and elected officials set up tables to present members of the community with information about the resources available in Montgomery County. 

Hope Stein is an employee of Renew Family Services, an organization whose work includes everything from rehabilitation to family support groups and mindfulness classes. Stein often serves as a direct link to treatment for DARA participants.

“I do assessments personally for [Judge Duffy], so I’m on call for her all the time,” Stein commented. “I get their name, address, phone number, and insurance. It depends if they’re going into jail, or if they’re coming off the street. If they’re off the street, I’ll call them, and then sometimes I can just get a brief overview of what they’re using, what they need, and I can quickly assess and get them to the right facility. . . [other times] I have to set up an appointment with the jail.”

Alexis Bamford
Nick Yeager (left) and Ryan Osterlof of Sobriety Solutions, an intensive outpatient facility with locations in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Director of Business Development Melinda Goodwin of the Montco Recovery Center, a local in- and outpatient treatment facility, handed out information about the varying levels of care offered by the center. Goodwin expressed the desire of her organization “to treat the people that have substance use issues as well as co-occuring mental health, trauma, and eating disorders,” a sentiment echoed by many at the forum, as substance abuse often occurs in conjunction with an array of mental and emotional challenges.

Other organizations present included Nar-Anon, an anonymous support group for families struggling with addiction, Sobriety Solutions, an intensive outpatient facility dealing with long-term recovery, and the PA Department of Health and Human Services.

While DARA’s primary goal is to get individuals into recovery, its work doesn’t stop there – when Duffy designed the program, she was well aware of the extra steps involved with assisting newly-sober participants with their transition back to being healthy, productive members of society. This can take many forms, reflected by the variety of different options on display at the forum.

“I’m here with the Power Program, which is a program at Montgomery County Community College,” said Lori Schreiber, an Abington Township Commissioner who was recently elected to be the Montgomery County Clerk of Courts. “It’s a two-credit, free class for people in mental health or substance abuse recovery, and the focus is careers. . . the class material [helps] you be a better student or look for work or employment, so it’s a good opportunity,” Schreiber finished.

Alexis Bamford
Several people spoke at the forum, from elected officials to law enforcement to individuals in recovery.

In addition, Richard Buttacavoli, a representative of the Census Bureau, stated, “a lot of folks who are in recovery might be looking for a job, and the U.S. Census Bureau is looking to hire 1,000 people, just in Montgomery County alone, for the 2020 Census.”

The night continued with speeches; Montgomery County Commissioner Ken Lawrence, Jr. began by describing the steps being taken by local governments to counter the force of the opioid epidemic.

““[Addiction] is something that I’m not ashamed to say that we’re dealing with in my family. . .we [as a whole] have to continue to deal with that stigma each and every day, and I believe forums like this help to do that,” Lawrence explained. 

“Using grant funding, I’m proud to say today that all 50 of our police departments, and some of our fire companies, now carry [overdose-reversal drug] Naloxone,” said Lawrence, which is used in conjunction with an overdose surveillance system. This system detects “patterns of both fatal and non-fatal victims in real time. That’s actually how we can figure out, too, when there’s fentanyl that’s come into the market, because usually it’s concentrated. It gives our team the ability to quickly focus our resources on communities and individuals at [the] greatest risk for drug use and disorder, and it also gives us data-driven responses to further reduce drug overdose deaths,” he concluded.

Next, Joe Peterson, a former narcotics officer and current school resource officer in Norristown, spoke about his personal experience with alcohol addiction and recovery.

“My life has turned completely around since I got sober,” Peterson emphasized. “My life is so much better now that I have reached out, gotten help. . . I feel like this is my calling [to let people know that it’s okay to get help].”

He finished, “It’s part of my story to let you know that there is an answer, that you don’t have to suffer.”

At the conclusion of the forum, a recovering alcoholic named Tom shared his story. Like so many others, it began with a genetic predisposition towards substance dependency, weaving through stigma, shame, and sorrow before finally arriving at recovery and hope. He is now sober, after spending time in an inpatient facility as well as several Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. 

His path to getting the help he needed may not have been linear, but after doing so, said Tom, “I was alive again.”

If you or a loved one is struggling with substance abuse disorder, help is available – visit http://www.darasaveslives.com/.