Griswold tackling heroin problem from new angle
Griswold — The town that has branded itself the Sunflower Capital of New England to play up its connection to a beloved summer festival at a local farm is not hiding from its darker designation as the place where state troopers have revived more people with Narcan, an opioid overdose-reversal drug, than anywhere else in Connecticut.
Heroin is a serious problem in this eastern Connecticut town, but town leaders and state police say they are making a difference.
The state police have selected Griswold, which contains the 1-square-mile borough of Jewett City, for a pilot program they hope to expand to their entire statewide coverage area. The goal of the CRISIS Initiative — CRISIS stands for Connection to Recovery through Intervention, Support and Initiating Services — is to start drug treatment immediately for those who come forward for help, are referred by family members, are identified by state police or are arrested.
The key to its success, troopers say, will be Jonathan Luysterborghs, a licensed clinical social worker for the state Department of Mental Health & Addiction Services, who recently started working out of the Troop E barracks in Montville. The program, along with continued law enforcement efforts to stem the flow of heroin and deadly synthetic opioids into the region, will be funded by a $1.5 million grant that state police received last year from the federal Department of Justice.
In addition to Griswold residents, the program is available to anyone residing in Troop E's coverage area, which includes Lisbon, Montville, North Stonington, Preston and Sprague. Those who are struggling can simply walk into the Montville barracks and ask for help, call Troop E or call their resident trooper's office.
Timing is critical when someone addicted to heroin asks for help, said Wayne E. Kowal, trainer/coordinator of public education for the Statewide Narcotic Task Force. Once they go into withdrawal, their willingness to get treatment tends to dissolve.
"We're talking about fast-tracking people into the DMHAS system, because families simply don't know what to do," Kowal said. "If you can bring a clinician into the law enforcement world, it's a home run. We need to get the word out that the referral system is available to all people in the Troop E coverage area."
Troopers looked at programs in the Massachusetts towns of Gloucester and Arlington. They decided to model the program on the Connecticut Alliance to Benefit Law Enforcement's Crisis Intervention Team program, or CABLE, which originated in New London. Officers are trained by CABLE to de-escalate calls involving people with mental illness and collaborate with providers to get them services.
Kowal, Detective Mike Mudry and Miranda Nagle from Griswold PRIDE trained troopers and dispatchers during roll call sessions at the Montville barracks in June. Since the program started in June, 24 people have been referred for services, including seven from Griswold.
Though the state police will continue to target people and organizations that are trafficking heroin, they are hoping to minimize the number of addicted people they arrest by using the referral service.
"We have to look at the situation globally," said Capt. John S. Eckersley, commander of the Statewide Narcotics Task Force. "We're not going to arrest our way out of this."
Small town, major problem
Griswold, a town of just under 12,000 people, has been at the forefront of the opioid crisis in Connecticut.
In 2014, a state trooper administered the agency's first life-saving dose of Narcan to an overdose patient in Griswold after lawmakers passed a law enabling first responders to use the overdose-reversal drug naloxone, the generic name of the medicine, without fear of litigation.
Between 2015 and 2017, Griswold state troopers revived 21 people with Narcan, leading the state in the number of saves, according to Kowal. The next highest area in state police jurisdiction was the Hartford area, which had nine. Two other towns covered by state police had six saves, and the rest had five or below. The Griswold figure does not include the number of people revived by other first responders.
Griswold was the hometown of 17-year-old Olivia Roark, the state's youngest victim in 2016 of a fatal heroin overdose, though she died in Groton. Four other town residents also died of fatal overdoses last year, according to the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. The medical examiner's office was so overwhelmed by the 917 overdose deaths that occurred statewide in 2016 that it lost its accreditation earlier this year due lack of staff to conduct autopsies and a shortage of space to store the bodies.
The state police say they identified Griswold for the CRISIS Initiative pilot because of the need here and because of the work of Griswold PRIDE. In 2015, community leaders from different sectors came together to form PRIDE, which stands for Partnership to Reduce the Influence of Drugs for Everyone. The organization is working to make the town "as drug free as possible" through outreach programs. PRIDE cuts a wide swath in the community, with members representing youth, parents, businesses, churches, law enforcement, schools, health care providers and town government.
The organizers targeted so many different segments because, in some way, everyone in town is affected by substance abuse crisis.
"My new motto is, 'You either know someone, love someone, are someone or lost someone," said Nagle, program coordinator for PRIDE.
Nobody can say there's nothing for kids to do
The town's Park & Recreation and Youth and Family Services departments have worked hard to give young people plenty of fun alternatives to substance abuse. The youth center on Ashland Street offers a cool and inviting place for kids on hot summer afternoons, with video games, pool and air hockey tables, an art room, snacks and staff who listen if there's a problem. The town has a summer camp program, after-school programs, a skate park, ballfields and programs that attract thousands of people of all ages, such as the upcoming Sunflower Stroll and Main Street Block Party on Aug. 12.
Ryan Aubin, director of youth services and parks and recreation, grew up in town and said his kids now attend the award-winning youth programs. Nobody in town can say there's nothing for kids to do, he said.
"We put that to rest," he said. "We were bored when we were that age."
Despite the efforts of the caring adults in town, kids are exposed, sometimes at home and sometimes on the streets, to the problems that ail society at large. Summer Lynn Maurer, 20, whose mother died from an overdose on pills and alcohol in 2005, said she would never use drugs. She said she has seen "heroin needles" discarded on the street and witnessed drug deals in parking lots.
"It appalls me to see what people do to themselves," she said during a recent interview. "They get all skinny and tapped out. They have to have it. And they put all those holes in their body."
Griswold First Selectman Kevin Skulczyck, also a state representative for the 45th District and retired correction officer who worked with offenders in the community, said the problem hit home when a young town resident he knew died of an overdose right after he took office in 2012. He thinks he dealt with the problem daily during his first year in office. He said he met with "pockets of resistance" when he brought up the topic.
Since then, the town brought back a revamped DARE, or Drug Abuse Resistance Education, program funded through PRIDE and private donations. A narcotics suppression team of undercover troopers was assigned to stifle the local drug trade. The CRISIS Initiative pilot program is the newest tool intended to deliver help and hope where it's needed.
"We are moved by the fact that we were chosen," Skulczyck said. "We've got a team of professionals who are going to do their jobs. You're going to see really good research and data, and I think best practices will come out of this. All of the community leaders will sit down and say, 'We've seen a reduction.' I don't see us winning this in our generation, but I think we can make a difference."
Those who want help can call the Troop E barracks at (860) 848-6500, or their resident trooper's office.