justiceAbout a hundred people went to an eye-opening event last night hosted by Mary Nixon at the New Leaf Club in Rosemont.

Addressing the apparent ambivalence regarding society’s near passive reaction to thousands of sick people dying each year from the epidemic of heroin, Judge Steven O’Neill from the Montgomery County Drug Treatment Court started his presentation by quoting Joseph Stalin (of all people):
‘The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.’

Not a single person in that big room failed to understand his point. As a society, we seem to have become numb to the numbers. Is it because we don’t think addicted people are worth saving? Do we think they are simply bad people who need to be punished? Are we unable to accept that “substance use disorders” are chronic, progressive and all too often terminal brain diseases?

I doubt you could find a single adult living in our 5-county area that hasn’t been impacted by or lost a friend, family member or classmate to addiction. For more than a decade Americans have been losing loved ones – one loved one at a time. The problem is rampant. And it just hit home again.

Pam and I work with parents of children with drug and alcohol problems, and sadly, while the Judge was making his presentation last night, a beautiful young lady – the daughter of one of our friends – overdosed. This loss is not a statistic. It’s a tragedy, and an outrage.

Parents cannot treat their addicted kids themselves – we aren’t doctors or treatment specialists. We can no more treat addiction than cancer or MS or schizophrenia. Parents need help, but more often than not they are pushed aside, shielded from information by counter-productive privacy laws while guilt, shame, frustration and abject fear prevents us from making rational decisions.

Over time, parents become traumatized. After experiencing repeated overdoses, arrests, seizures, disappearances, rapes, and hospitalizations, parents react to midnight phone calls the same way a Vietnam veteran reacts to a low flying helicopter or fireworks. And then, after emptying their bank accounts and taking other extreme measures to help their child, they get blamed for being bad parents.

There seems to be no political will to address something that many people still see as a moral failing rather than a very real medical problem. Society may recently have progressed from ignoring the heroin epidemic to giving it lip service, but Judge O’Neill ardently stated that lip service isn’t enough:
“We don’t need more discussion about the problem. We need solutions.”

He told us that there are approximately 3,000 drug courts in the US. This seems like a big number, but with nearly 80% of the 2.3 million people who are captive to the US judicial system finding themselves there as a direct result of addiction, 3,000 drug courts aren’t nearly enough. Montgomery County handles about 150 people in its drug court every year. With 15,000 people a year going through the County court system, the math says that thousands are not getting the help they need. But frankly, we’re grateful that Montgomery County is trying, and the work they do is working for those in the program.

He told us that most of the people in the judicial system are repeat offenders who have been to jail but never got treatment for their problem. They don’t get treatment in jail. They just get jail. When they get out, many return to their old behaviors. They don’t have an alternative. They almost invariably do more damage to themselves and others, and end up back in an already burgeoning penal system.

Einstein said: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result.” Judge O’Neill – like many others who understand the legitimacy of treatment over incarceration – suggested it’s time for change. We have to start doing something different, and Montgomery County has.

Drug treatment courts, following evidence-based practices that have clinically been proven to work, are drastically cutting recidivism rates of addicts after treatment. In Montgomery County, the rate is 32% compared to a national average of 75%. This high level of improvement should incentivize governments – local and national – to establish or expand Drug Treatment Courts services.

The cost savings of not arresting, prosecuting, incarcerating, adjudicating and managing repeat offenders will more than cover the cost of treatment and family support. Treatment costs a fraction compared to incarceration and it works. It should be expanded but for today that’s not happening. The judicial system promotes punishment over treatment despite the savings and reduction in crime.

Not satisfied with the status quo, Judge O’Neill recently initiated trial programs to lengthen the term of treatment, and engage families to provide a safer environment for the recovering addict to come home to. If these new programs reduce recidivism further, they will hopefully be adopted and funded.

The same is true for other specialty courts such as Veterans Courts and DUI Courts that have been proven to be more effective than locking people up where they get no treatment.

And if ever there was a national disgrace, it is the incarceration of hundreds of thousands of mentally ill patients simply because they suffer from a brain disorder that we – as a people – aren’t willing to provide proper MEDICAL care for. Lacking the will to commit other resources, we lock them up. Would you imprison people suffering from dementia, Alzheimer’s or autism? Of course not; but our jails are full of people with mental illness because we don’t know what else to do with them.

To address this specific population, the Judge informed us that Montgomery County also runs a Behavioral Health Court. The people in the room applauded this meaningful decision. The overwhelming belief is that people must be held accountable for their actions, but they must also be given the opportunity to get well. If you make a mistake, you have to amend and atone, but you will be given treatment for your illness to help prevent you from returning to the judicial system.

The inhumanity of incarcerating sick people should be reason enough to stop the practice, but the added bonus of saving taxpayers money and reducing the risk to society by providing proven health interventions should be more than enough incentive to give Behavioral Health Courts – and all the specialty courts – the full support they deserve.

If so, maybe we can keep another of our kids safe. Too many parents have gotten the call – that their child is in a coma, in jail, is missing, or worse. Yes – worse. Maybe we won’t have to bury the next victim of this disease. And maybe – just maybe – the disease won’t leave another mother and father broken beyond measure. God damn it; we need to do more. As our friend, Father Bill Hultberg, says: “We’re silently losing a whole generation of our kids”. He’s right. It’s happening. Can we find the will to change that?

Thanks go out to Judge O’Neill, to Stephanie Landes, to Megan Thomas and to rest of the dedicated Montgomery County Drug Court P.O’s and staff for being part of the SOLUTION; and for taking the fight to the courthouse on behalf of sick veterans, addicts and mentally ill in Montgomery County. Your passion and dedication was not missed by us last night. Maybe we can’t change national statistics, but your work has already prevented numerous individual tragedies. We appreciate all the work you do. If you live nearby and have a child or family member that needs help, contact Montgomery County Drug Treatment and other social services programs for help. Call the New Leaf Club and ask Mary or Katie for a referral. Reach out to a Family or Parent support group. Go to an Al-anon, Nar-anon or other 12 step meeting. Find a knowledgeable addiction treatment professional to answer your medical questions. Lose the shame, lose the guilt, and get into action. Know that there are thousands of people just like you who are in the same boat, where the boat for “prevention” has sailed, where your peers have gone through the nightmare, come out the other end and are willing to share with you what worked and what didn’t work. You don’t have to go through this alone.

Peace to all the parents and family members; especially those who have lost a child, brother, sister, grandchild or parent to this disease. Our hearts are with you today, and they will be with you tomorrow.