Rutland, Vt., is like many small towns in America: blue collar, lots of charm and a devastating heroin problem.
Residents told America Tonight that everyone here is affected in some way by the scourge of addiction, and our special series on Rutland’s heroin crisis is examining the different ways heroin can ravage a community. Here are some of the faces of Rutland’s dark secret – one that is spreading across rural America.
The family doctor
Dr. Deborah Richter, a family physician in Montpelier and one of the state’s leading addiction specialists, has watched the opiate crisis evolve. “I moved here in 1999, and in early 2000 [and] 2001, I started seeing a bunch of 20-year-olds come in with habits of OxyContin,” she said. “To me, that was the starting point of how things got started. It started out with pills.”
Karol, who asked to only be identified by her first name, said her son, a father of two, has stolen all her valuables to feed his addiction. She doesn’t understand how it happened. She raised him so wholesomely, she said: private schools, Sunday Mass, visits to the grandparents’ house every week. “I feel horrible as a mother to say I honestly don't know whom my son is anymore. He's not the child I raised,” she said. “And it's all because of the addict in him. I really feel like I’m dying a slow death.”
The recovering addicts
Matt Fredette and Ashley Blanchard have been clean for a year and six months, respectively. Before his addiction cost him a successful career as a computer technician for the Department of Homeland Security, he said he was already spending double his salary to get his fix. Blanchard put herself in rehab after about a dozen overdoses put her in hospital. “I was homeless with a gun to my head,” she said. “It destroys you. You're happy. You're sad. You're miserable. You're excited. And physically, everything on your body hurts.”
The Suboxone baby
Rutland is home to the most drug-addicted pregnant women in the entire country per capita. Jessica Coleman* was addicted to heroin for 10 years, but switched to the opioid replacement drug Suboxone when she discovered she was pregnant. Experts say this is safer than quitting cold turkey, but Coleman said the guilt is overwhelming every time she watches the video of her baby boy Jax, wailing in what she’s sure were the throes of Suboxone withdrawal. “He detoxed,” she said. “I mean, he screamed, he cried. He had all the symptoms. There’s no settling them.”
The public health planner
To address the heroin crisis, Vermont is shifting from inpatient rehabilitation to intensive outpatient treatment, based around opiate-based medications. Last summer, it slashed the number of residential rehab days it would fund. “The number of people we’ve treated since 2000 has increased tenfold,” said Harry Chen, Vermont’s commissioner for health. “I think you have to find that to be the best stewards of the dollars, to be the most effective for the greatest number of people.”
The rehab director
Dick Keane runs Serenity House, a residential rehab facility in central Vermont. He’s skeptical of the emphasis on replacement drugs, which he believes just replaces one addiction with another. Since the state cut the number of days of inpatient treatment it would fund – from 28 days to 14, absent a special waiver – he said he’s seen the number of relapses skyrocket. “If we can get them there another 60, 90 days, the percentage [of recoveries] just goes up and up,” he said.
Sarah Martin had a cocaine problem when she was 15 or 16, her father Patrick said, but they sought treatment for her and thought everything was fine. She had a job, applied to college. Then, the police knocked on the door. They told her father that Sarah's body had been dumped in a hospital parking lot after she died from a heroin overdose. “She died a very slow death at the apartment of the people she was with,” Martin said. “They sanitized the place as she was dying.”
The support network
After the death of his daughter Sarah, Patrick Martin and his wife started coming to her favorite spot, a bench in downtown Rutland. That’s where they decided to found a support group for families trying to understand and cope with a loved one’s heroin addiction. They named it Wit’s End. “If we can save one other person, help one other person live, help another family save their child, then her life won’t have been in vain,” Martin said. “She was so much more than drugs.”
Kimberly Jones’ mother, who did not give permission for her name or face to be used, is among the 80 percent of Vermont’s inmates who are in for drug crimes. “When the feds asked me if she was still using, I told them yes, and she blamed me for that,” said Kimberly, who struggled with addiction herself. “And she blamed me for that. That’s why she went to jail, because I wouldn’t lie for her.”
Kimberly Jones, 25, used to do a quick business as a heroin dealer. She watched her mother use drugs to escape reality, she said, and followed her example. She’s now been clean 16 months, and is lobbying Vermont lawmakers to increase funding for long-term rehabilitation. “I think that’s bizarre,” she said about the states 14-day rule. “I know in my first two weeks I wasn’t ready.”
Asked how she found her way to rehab, she replied: “I just wanted to live, and I was at a point where I wasn’t going to live much longer.”
* Correction added March 14: An earlier version had an incorrect last name for Coleman.
With editing by Claire Gordon