There have been 17 opioid overdose deaths in Southampton so far in 2017, up from just five in 2016, and the nationwide epidemic is showing few signs of letting up here.
Southampton Town formed an Opioid Addiction Task Force about a month ago, and the task force’s first move was to hold a forum to get community input at Hampton Bays High School Nov. 15.
The auditorium was packed with more than 200 people who had been impacted in some way by opioid addiction, and many were frustrated by the process of hearing speakers talk — they demanded action and shared heart-wrenching stories of losing their children to overdoses and their fears that they will be unable to keep other people from experiencing the same loss.
Words, they said, are not enough.
Chairing Southampton’s committee is former News 12 anchor Drew Scott, who lost his granddaughter, Hallie Rae Ulrich, to an opioid overdose earlier this fall.
“If people admitted this was an epidemic, we’d be making headway,” said Mr. Scott. “It happened to me and it can happen to you, your children and loved ones.”
A plethora of potential solutions — from better insurance procedures to allow same-day admission to rehab to better partnerships between the police and the community to better understanding of addiction among hospital staff to parents setting better examples by not drinking and partying around their kids — was offered by the panel, while the task force’s 26 members sat and listened, mostly stoically, at tables on stage and at the front of the auditorium.
“We cannot expect legislation to fix this problem,” audience member Eric Saldivar told the panel. “We need to educate people about this. People need to know that addiction is a brain disease. You need to get young people involved in the process. I’ll help you bring us to the table.”
Robert Fox, whose son Kyle died of an overdose on Sept. 6 of this year, pointed out that many opioid addictions begin with pharmaceutical products approved by the FDA, after heavy lobbying of the U.S. Congress.
“He thought they were relatively safe because the pharmaceutical companies made them,” he said. “It’s just never going to end. Not one kid I know who’s 15 or 16 is going to stick a needle in their arm.”
Marie Guerrera-Tooker said she’d personally been antagonized by the Southampton Town Police, whom she alleged were covering for addict police officers and former Town Councilman Brad Bender, who went to federal prison for his part in an opioid sales ring, when she tried to report drug sales in her neighborhood.
She said she is in the process of filing a lawsuit against the town.
“Get rid of the corrupt players in Southampton,” she said, adding that she’s hopeful that new police chief Steven Skrynecki will turn things around.
“God is here and he is bringing forth good people. To all the ones who’ve done wrong, say you’re sorry and get out.”
Attorney Lisa Logan of East Moriches said her son has suffered for years with addiction, and treatment programs and drug courts haven’t helped, and nobody will take his insurance to get him into treatment. She added that some of his counselors in treatment were people who he’d partied with at Hofstra University.
“How can you have someone hypocritical telling my son not to drink when she parties on the weekend?” she asked, adding that “kids in rehab now at South Oaks are 12 years old and they’re heroin addicts.”
“A lot of programs listed on the website, they’re useless,” she said. “We’re referred to as ‘private pays…’ If I had Medicaid he would be accepted, but I don’t…. I have very good insurance, but a lot of people don’t have $42,000 for 28 days. They don’t.”
“I sit on boards too and I know anybody can do a good dog and pony show,” she told the panel. If you go undercover with civilians, you can hear what’s really happening.”
Southampton Town Justice Barbara Wilson, who participates in the East End Regional Drug Intervention Court, was offended by Ms. Logan’s remarks.
“I don’t run a dog and pony show in my court. If people want it and are eligible, they will get into the drug court,” she said, after which Ms. Logan got quite upset and insinuated that Ms. Wilson didn’t understand what she’d been going through.
“My sister’s dead. She’s a heroin addict,” said Judge Wilson, her voice trembling. “I do encourage everyone to please give it a try.”
Task Force Member Alfredo Merat, a 25-year member of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous who works with young addicts in local high schools and the drug court, urged parents to come with their kids to 12-step program meetings.
“It doesn’t cost anything to come sit with them,” he said.
Doree Cohen, who is in Al-Anon, said her son went through drug treatment, and is now a police lieutenant in New Jersey. She is a member of a group called Families in Support of Treatment that frequently travels to Albany to lobby for changes to laws regarding drug treatment.
“We’re making a difference,” she said.
Shinnecock Nation member Meesha Johnson, who’s working on her masters degree in social work, said she thought there should be more young people and people of color on the panel.
Her mother, Michelle Johnson, asked what the town police could do to solve drug trafficking problems on the reservation.
“We did lose a lot of young men to drug overdose,” she said, adding that “people think ‘we can do what we want and it’s ok’ because of the Nation’s sovereign status.
“You view users as people in need and not criminals, but nine times out of 10, they are criminals,” she added.
Mackenzie Jenkins of Hampton Bays had one simple message, which she read from her cell phone.
“Creating a toxic environment filled with anger won’t solve anything. Create an environment filled with possibility,” she said, then shrugged, like many young people do when making a suggestion to their elders, and then walked away.
The evening began with four speakers who gave overviews of their work with addiction, including Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds, who serves on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Heroin and Opioid Task Force; Kym Laube of Human Understanding and Growth Services (HUGS) in Westhampton Beach; Linda Ventura, who lost her son Thomas to opioid addiction; and Southampton Town’s new police chief, Steven Skrynecki.
Dr. Reynolds said it can take up to 10 days to get someone into treatment on Long Island, and “we won’t solve this problem until we have treatment on demand for everyone.”
He added that substance abuse can’t be separated from mental health issues, and said many addicts say they don’t take drugs to get high. They take them to feel normal.
“Parents are reluctant to saddle kids with a psychiatric disorder,” he said. “They say ‘it’s just a phase, but it’s not just a phase.”
“It all begins with alcohol and marijuana,” he added.
He suggested many other important goals: inpatient treatment centers for mothers with children, recovery high schools, and making Narcan readily available.
He said it may be frustrating for first responders to save addicts’ lives with Narcan, only to have them overdose again, but if they continue to keep them alive, “they may live to darken the door of a recovery facility.”
“We do a really good job talking to young people about drugs, but we do a lousy job giving them something to replace it,” he added.
Ms. Laube reminded the crowd that many adults on the East End are not providing a good example to their kids when they have drugs and alcohol readily available in their homes.
“We have no street cred with our kids” when we talk about not using drugs, she said.
Ms. Ventura shared a first-person audio narrative of her son’s life, telling the story about how he slowly became an addict, before dying after relapsing just after coming out of rehab when he was 21 years old.
“I belong to a club that no parent should belong to, and I acknowledge new people into my club every day,” she said. “We all live in a prison that no one can escape from…. We’re being robbed of a generation.”
Chief Skrynecki began with a PowerPoint slide of the police department’s crime tips hotline, 631.728.3454, and urged people to call the police to report drug activity in their neighborhood.
“Since I’ve been here, I hear people say ‘I know what’s going on.’ You do know what’s going on, but I need to know what’s going on,” he said. “You’re in the neighborhood, on the streets, please call us and give us information to help us disrupt the trafficking that’s going on in the Hamptons.”
Chief Skrynecki added that the town is also implementing “no questions asked substance testing,” so that family members who find a drug in their home can bring it in to the police department for analysis to find out what it is.
“If you have a conversation with your child and you’re not sure they’re being honest with you, we will analyze that with anonymity, no questions asked,” he said. “Then we can get back to you and let you know what you have in your home so you can take appropriate action.”