Current and former program participants at Place of Grace watch a program on the television at the organization’s recovery home in Huntington in February 2022. Staff photo by Brett Stover
Current and former program participants at Place of Grace watch a program on the television at the organization’s recovery home in Huntington in February 2022. Staff photo by Brett Stover
“When I did opiates, I literally felt nothing. I was just numb, so [the pain] was finally gone.”

In 2014, Alisha Ladyga pleaded guilty to and subsequently was convicted of dealing a controlled substance within 1,000 feet of a family housing complex – at the time, a Class A felony.

Although it was her first felony conviction, she was sentenced to 18 years in prison. Ladyga says the arrest was the best thing that has ever happened to her.

“I wish it would have happened sooner. It changed my whole life,” Ladyga said. “It changed the path that I was on, that my kids were on, my family.”

That feeling of numbness was Ladyga’s way of escaping from her past, of shutting out the “overwhelming emotions” that would pour in during withdrawal.

“I had a bunch of abandonment issues, past trauma, depression, so I think that opiates were just the key to that escape for me,” Ladyga said. “I don’t necessarily think of addiction as a disease, but I do believe that it’s a chemical imbalance in our brain that affects our decision making. I think that’s what was happening with me.”

In the eight years since Ladyga’s conviction, the opioid crisis in Huntington County – and across the United States – has only worsened.

During an overdose awareness meeting at Huntington North High School last November, Huntington County Sheriff Chris Newton shared a shocking news alert he received earlier that day: more than 100,000 in the U.S. had died of drug overdoses in the U.S. during the previous 12 months from April 2020 to April 2021. It marked the first time the nation had recorded that many overdose deaths in a single year and, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was an increase of 28.5 percent over the previous year.

Three quarters of those 100,306 deaths– 75,673 – were attributed to opioids.

“I started in 1995, and I started out as a reserve officer,” Newton said. “I’ll tell you, the only things we were really battling at the time that we saw in Huntington was, you know, alcohol and marijuana. You’d throw in a bit of LSD here and there. You’d hear about crack cocaine – didn’t see it much.”

Later, Newton said, methamphetamine became a more serious concern. Then came the rise in opioid prescriptions.

“For some of the doctors that’s kind of what they were being told. They don’t want to see their client or their patient be in pain, so, you know, give them something,” Newton said. “But the back side of that is they are teaching the body to rely on that drug. So, opioids were the big draw. I mean, that’s your pain reliever. The tolerance levels were increasing, and the amount that these people needed to have was increasing before long.”

According to the CDC, the rate of doctors prescribing opioids in the U.S. peaked a decade ago and has been declining ever since. However, the potency of those prescriptions remains “around three times higher” than the average strength of opioids prescribed in 1999. From that year until 2019, nearly 247,000 people across the country died of overdoses involving prescription opioids.

Under former Mayor Brooks Fetters, the city of Huntington entered the legal fight against prescription drug manufacturers, an effort that has continued under Mayor Richard Strick.

“We joined the class action suit with other municipalities across the nation in going after the manufacturers of these opioids and were really pushing pain pill prescriptions, and we know ... that when these folks saw addiction skyrocketing in a community, their response was not to send resources for recovery,” Strick said. “Their response was to send more salespeople into those areas.”

Strick called the city a “small boat in a big ocean” that is still living in the wake of the decisions made by those pharmaceutical companies. While he admits he doesn’t have all the answers, Strick believes it will take “change and sacrifice” from everyone in order to get closer to solving the crisis.

“Frankly, that angers me to no end. It really pushes the boundaries to me of any kind of Christian duty to forgiveness and mercy,” Strick said. “I hope the book gets thrown at these families. So far they’ve been very monied and protected interests. They need [to be] prosecuted for their actions because they have killed hundreds of thousands of people across the United States and around the world by lying about the addictive nature of the things they were pushing.”

Police Chief Cory Boxell, who was selected by Strick to head the city’s police force in December, mentioned the opioid epidemic as one of the most serious issues facing the city. A former Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) officer, Boxell believes reviving the program would be a positive step forward for the county.

“The program allows officers to be in the classroom with kids and build those relationships over a multi-week period, and I think that’s important that we show kids consistency,” Boxell said. “It gives them the opportunity to build those relationships.”

Reinstituting the DARE program in the Huntington County Community School Corporation is one of Boxell’s biggest goals, one that he hopes can be implemented by 2023.

Throughout his career, Boxell’s work has often focused on drug-related law enforcement. While prescription opioids were perhaps the inciting incident for the crisis, the focus in recent years has shifted to modern synthetic opioids like fentanyl.

Huntington County has seen an exponential rise in opioid-related overdoses during the past three years. There were four in 2019, a number that more than doubled to nine in 2020 according to data provided by the Huntington County Health Department. In 2021, the number doubled again – to 18.

During the past three years, 23 of those 31 deaths had a primary cause that included fentanyl. According to the CDC, the drug is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.

“I think the drugs are a lot more dangerous,” Newton said. “I think a lot of the people who are addicts, they are aware of the dangers. They try to put as much caution in there, but they are still an addict.”

According to data provided to the Sheriff’s Department by Parkview Emergency Medical Services, there were 137 EMS patients that suffered overdoses in 2021. First responders from HPD, HCSD and the Huntington Fire Department administered 46 doses of naloxone, a medicine that quickly helps to treat opioid overdose victims.

Often referred to by the brand name Narcan, the treatment was also administered to nine individuals by bystanders, not first responders, according to the data, and Parkview EMS administered 49 doses of Naloxone.

Organizations like Overdose Lifeline now offer training courses designed to teach people that are not first responders how to administer naloxone in order to save more lives.

In his experience, Boxell believes that many people struggling with addiction only begin to accept help after reaching the nadir of their struggles.

“Until they hit that proverbial rock bottom, it’s hard,” Boxell said. “You can’t just force help on someone. I’ll be honest: I tried, but more times than not, they become failures. Right? They drop out of the program or they run away from the house.”

One of the biggest changes in the past few decades has been the increase in additional programs available for those struggling with addiction.

“As a law enforcement society,” Boxell said, “we have changed so much in the course of my career in the sense that we don’t just find somebody in possession of drugs and we lock them up and throw away the key and just forget about it.”

In 2016, Huntington County began a new problem-solving court “ –Drug Court” – that provides alternative sentencing options for arrestees that are dealing with drug-related offenses. Superior Court Judge Jennifer Newton, a leading force behind the push to establish the drug court, said it has allowed for more rehabilitation-focused sentencing.

“Our drug court team consists of a lot of different agencies, and we meet every week and discuss the participants,” Jennifer Newton said. “Before the participants are even allowed to become participants they have an interview with a mental health provider ... and also our drug court coordinator. They get into past trauma, so we try to address the person as a whole rather than just punishing them for their offense.”

An additional benefit to the program, Jennifer Newton said, is that it reduces recidivism rates by addressing those concerns.

“Drug court, it’s not easy. It’s very structured, very structured, but we have so many support services that we offer the participants through drug court that if they want to take advantage of them, they can,” Jennifer Newton said. “Is everyone successful? Of course not. Regardless, I think a person has to want to change and be willing to make some tough changes in their life, and if they do, we are providing the resources for them. We are going to help them get there. I think that’s a completely different approach than 15 years ago.”

While Ladyga did not go through the drug court program itself, she spoke favorably of Newton’s approach. Four years into her sentence, Ladyga was at risk of losing custody of her children. She filed for a modified sentence and was “stunned” by the response.

“I went up in front of [former prosecutor] Amy [Richison] and Jenny Newton,” Ladyga said. They said, yes, that everything that I had done: my record in prison was completely clean... I stayed out of trouble. I had no write ups. So then they put the rest of it on probation.”

Other options for sentencing and treatment have emerged in recent years, including the O’Donnell Center at Victory Knoll. The center will eventually house the county’s Community Corrections department, the Parkview Behavioral Health Institute and other organizations like the county’s Emergency Management Agency, Huntington County Human Resources and Huntington County Central Dispatch.

“We are first going to be offering a restorative, residential work release [program], so we’re going to have your typical work release that we have never had in this county a facility for that,” Chris Newton said. “We are also having, and this is how we differ from other work release facilities, we are holding onto that restorative residential piece of it where we are providing onsite services for people.”

Inside the newly-expanded Huntington County Jail, Chris Newton hopes the Jail Chemical Addiction Program will provide additional assistance to those incarcerated in the county.

“With the JCAP program ... they’re essentially going to be that same group of people” Chris Newton said. “They are here for the same reason: because they are addicts or drug users. Getting them into a program and learning to lean on each other and those times when they feel like: ‘I’m going to fail. I’m going to relapse. I need help.’ They have somebody that went through that exact, same program, and they can lean on them. They know that person understands, or they made that connection with that person, and that may be the difference of walking that person off of a ledge and using heroin or fentanyl again and overdosing and dying.”

That sense of community is important and is echoed by those inside and outside law enforcement. For Ladyga, she found that at Place of Grace, a recovery house in Huntington.

In terms of addiction treatment and response, there’s kind of two pathways: outpatient and inpatient. The majority of people who are going to go through treatment are going through an outpatient program such as Bowen Center, Parkview...” Place of Grace Executive Director Brittany Renkenberger said. “For those who need additional services beyond that, then that relies on the inpatient or residential side, and that’s where Place of Grace and Harmony Home and those types of things land.”

Jennifer Newton said that she will sometimes sentence individuals dealing with addiction to serve their sentence at halfway houses, assisted by GPS monitoring devices.

“We have advocates within our criminal justice system here locally that really see the benefit of persons completing recovery programs if they appear to be really invested in their recovery and making some significant life changes as they see that there’s real merit in that approach versus a person, you know, serving time,” Renkenberger said.

However, she acknowledged that there are still not enough organizations in the county to properly address the opioid crisis. Often there are waitlists that delay an individual’s ability to enter a house, which can be “demoralizing.”

“It can be a hindrance to following through with that commitment because when that person is ready in that moment, you know, that’s the nature of addiction,” Renkenberger said. “That craving is going to come back around eventually.”

Additionally, Renkenberger said that there are not enough organizations that aim to bridge the gap after inpatient treatment programs, as well as affordable housing options – especially for those convicted of felonies.

“There’s not that in between ‘I’ve completed inpatient treatment’ and normal life ... There’s a real need for that in the recovery community as a whole...” Renkenberger said. “We see a gap in service here in Huntington County is the need for that step down and transitional programing for the person who has achieved their sobriety, but they’re not quite ready to be fully independent yet. They need that in between service or transitional housing to help them practice independent living situations [and] the skills that they learned in that initial recovery program.”

Houses like Place of Grace help provide structure and stability to those dealing with addiction and exiting incarceration. Ladyga sees the support and education she received at the house as crucial to getting her life back on track.

“I had learned no skills, right? Because I didn’t have my mom, dad. I didn’t have a family support system. Then I got on drugs, just didn’t know any life skills,” Ladyga said. “They help teach you things like that, normal things. Like, my credit score is at 750 now. I have my own house, a

brand new car, all because of things that they had taught me in there – life skills that I didn’t learn from my family.”

While the transition in and out of prison, to Place of Grace and eventually back into the world at large hasn’t always been smooth, she is now a graduate of the program – and a member of the organization’s board of directors.

Ladyga will be eight years sober on Aug. 27 and said she wouldn’t be where she is today without the community’s “support and love.”

“[Entering Place of Grace], I was anxious. I was scared. I hadn’t been around people in normal clothes or normal people in so long, and they broke that barrier pretty fast,” Ladyga said. “It was like, ‘Hey, here it is. This is real life.’ You know? This is what it is, and I love that. I absolutely love that. Between Place of Grace, this community and prison, that is exactly why I am almost eight years sober.”

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