Wabash County Superior Court Judge Benjamin D. Vanderpool operates a 'Drug Court" in his courtroom for criminal defendants. Photo provided by Brian Swihart
Wabash County Superior Court Judge Benjamin D. Vanderpool operates a 'Drug Court" in his courtroom for criminal defendants. Photo provided by Brian Swihart
Like every community in the country, Wabash County has been reeling from the staggering increase in the number of people struggling with chemical addictions, especially opioids.

Nearly one in 12 Hoosiers, almost a half million people, meet the criteria for having a substance use disorder (SUD), according to Indiana University.

Drug overdoses in Indiana have nearly doubled since 2010, growing from 923 to 1,809 in 2017.

Approximately 4,000 Hoosiers have died from opioids in the last decade.

Indiana’s drug-induced mortality rate quadrupled between 2000 and 2014.

More Hoosiers now die from drug overdoses than car crashes.

Between 2012 and 2016, deaths related to synthetic opioids in Indiana increased over 600 percent.

Bowen Center addiction recovery services director Wayne Peterson-Stephan said that while opioid addiction has been a problem “for a while,” it has been “getting worse,” because synthetic opioids such as fentanyl have become “a huge game-changer” in this part of the state.

“I know it kind of started in central Indiana and I think it’s really made its way to northeast Indiana. That’s just such a huge part of the opioid crisis and that increase in overdose because it’s such a potentially lethal substance and because we see it laced with other substances and users … purchasing substances they may not even realize that was laced with fentanyl. and then they don’t have the tolerance for it,” said Peterson-Stephan.

In response, officials from many professions in the community – including law enforcement officers, judges, probation officers, counselors, volunteers, medical professionals, recovering addicts and others – have joined together to tackle this ongoing issue.

Law enforcement perspective

Wabash Police Department public information officer Capt. Matt A. Benson said just during the last year, they had responded to 17 calls for overdose, two of those being fatalities. Benson said out of the 17 overdose calls they responded to they had enough evidence on nine of those to send paperwork for criminal charges.

Benson said their officers have used the opioid overdose treatment Narcan in the past, but that there was “no documentation on how many times we have used it and or have been successful.”

“There have been several times a drug user possesses their own Narcan that someone else in the home has already used on them before police or medics arrive on scene,” said Benson.

Benson said opioids and other illicit drugs “have a huge impact on law enforcement” and are often associated with crimes including thefts, burglaries and domestic violence, among others.

Benson said if they arrest someone for a drug-related crime, the officers will conduct a preliminary field test kit to see if they get a positive test. However, they still must send the suspected illegal narcotic to the Indiana State Police (ISP) lab in Fort Wayne.

“An average turnaround time is about six months to receive the lab-confirmed tests,” said Benson. In the meantime, while we wait, some drug cases sit in the courts until the lab results return. Investigating a drug-related case is very time-consuming for each individual officer.”

‘Problem Solving Courts’

Once an arrest is made by law enforcement, that’s when the courts become involved.

Wabash Circuit Court Judge Robert R. “Bob” McCallen III said Wabash County has three “Problem Solving Courts,” as they are generally called.

McCallen operates a “Family Recovery and Preservation Court” for Indiana Department of Child Services families, while Judge Benjamin D. Vanderpool operates a “Drug Court” for criminal defendants and also a “Re-entry Court” for defendants coming back from the Indiana Department of Corrections (DOC).

McCallen said he was “very proud” of the number of these problem solving courts Wabash County has per capita.

“Wabash County, in my opinion, has been very proactive in addressing the opioid epidemic,” said McCallen. “However, much remains to be done.”

McCallen said these local courts involve a team, which includes the Probation Department, DCS, local mental health and substance use providers such as Parkview Hospital and the Bowen Center, Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), prosecutors and their deputies, judges and peer recovery coaches.

McCallen said the peer recovery coaches are “folks who have been involved with substance abuse and the courts and bring their valuable perspective and support to our participants.”

McCallen said it was around two and a half years ago they began the “Family Problem Court” in the Wabash Circuit Court before being later officially certified by the state. McCallen said graduates receive a toy fire truck to mark the history of the program locally. The court began with former Judge Christopher M. Goff, who is now an Indiana Supreme Court justice. McCallen began serving in the Wabash Circuit Court in 2005. McCallen said Goff came to Wabash shortly after he started his position. It was at this time that Goff brought these courts to Wabash.

“Approximately two years later we began collaborating so that ‘Family Court ’cases could also receive the benefit of the ‘Problem Solving Court ’philosophy,” said McCallen.

McCallen said at that time, Wabash was only the second county in the state with this type of court.

“Since he was the leader in problem-solving, I transferred my cases to him. We did it very informally and, at that time, did not seek certification for the ‘Family Court,’” said McCallen.

McCallen said after Goff left, these courts “fell off for a bit,” but were “resurrected” under Judge Amy Conner Cornell, Vanderpool’s predecessor.

McCallen said Cornell was the first female judge ever in Wabash County.

“She was a remarkable person. In addition to being a judge, she received her divinity degree and was an ordained minister,” said McCallen. “She brought a unique set of skills and perspective to the judiciary.”

“She had a love for people and for reaching out to them in their moment of greatest need,” he said. “Sadly, she lost her courageous battle with cancer less than a year after she became judge, leaving behind her husband and three small children. It was a terrible loss to everyone. However, her spirit lives on.”

McCallen said Cornell was “passionate” about this court “and its ability to positively impact those who participated in it.”

“It is, in my opinion, her legacy,” said McCallen, during a recent graduation ceremony. “One time I had done something. I don’t recall what it was. But she was very happy about it. She told me in an email which I still have that I was, ‘Fire Trucking Awesome. ’I have never forgotten that. If she were here, she would tell you that you are ‘Fire Trucking Awesome, ’as well. On her behalf, I do so now. I hope you will take pride in receiving the fire truck. You should.”

McCallen said for the last 12 years or so, Wabash County leaders have been meeting monthly in what is known as the “Success for All” committee. When they can meet in person, these meetings occur at the YMCA. Attendees include school superintendents, teachers, counselors, mental health professionals, law enforcement, judges, commissioners, legislators, clergy and other service providers throughout the community such as the Purdue Extension Office, Tobacco Free Coalition, the ACCESS and a myriad of other folks and organizations.

“The purpose of the meeting is to discuss what we are all doing to support one another and to collaborate on a variety of issues affecting our youth. This committee is unique,” said McCallen. “Usually it’s the networking after the meeting that leads to new and innovative programming. Our common goal is to improve the lives of the children of Wabash County.”

McCallen said they have learned they can not “incarcerate our way out of the problem.”

“Most folks suffering from an addiction want to live a better life,” said McCallen. “We try very hard to help them in the most difficult of times. I am very proud of what Wabash County is doing. We truly take a team approach and will continue to improve our efforts to combat the opioid abuse epidemic.”

Wabash County Court Services director and chief probation officer Brian Swihart said these “Problem Solving Courts” that Wabash County utilizes “may indeed be the most impactful way community leaders are addressing the drug issue locally.”

“Instead of a jail sentence, these participants are given counseling, treatment for their additions or illnesses, educational assistance and healthcare support,” said Swihart. “Every person brings perspective to the team where the goal is to help support the participant be successful while in our community.”

Wabash County Alcohol and Drug Court Program

Swihart said another program within the Wabash County Court Services Department is the Wabash County Alcohol and Drug Court Program, the purpose of which is “to provide the appropriate type of substance abuse assessment, education, referral to treatment and case management to eligible court offenders in need of such services and in lieu of criminal detention.”

Swihart said in 2021 alone, the Wabash County Alcohol and Drug Court Program has referred 385 defendants.

“The program was established with three goals in mind: To improve public safety by reducing alcohol and drug-related criminal activity and deviant behavior; to improve the quality of life of offenders, their family members and the public by reducing the frequency and severity of substance use by offenders, and; to provide such services through the use of user fees at no expense to the taxpayer,” said Swihart.

Swihart said for a program to be successful, those goals need objectives.

“The Wabash County Alcohol and Drug Court Program operates off four key objectives: To provide eligible offenders with a timely, appropriate assessment, for the purpose of determining an appropriate type of intervention; to provide appropriate referral for offenders to substance abuse education, outpatient treatment, and other services that will provide effective treatment for the offenders; to develop and maintain an effective network of treatment providers and contractors to whom clients may be referred; and to provide a continuum of care and management of an offender’s case that meets both the criminal justice and treatment system requirements by focusing on the compliance of the offender within their individualized treatment and criminal justice requirements,” said Swihart.

Drug Steering Committee

Wabash Mayor Scott Long said looking at the issue as just involving opioids was too short-sighted.

“The media needs to start addressing this as a Substance Use Disorder (SUD) crisis and not an opioid crisis,” said Long. “The media does a disservice by focusing on only one substance. That

is abused and causes problems. Alcohol, prescription medications, methamphetamine and many other things are abused that contribute to the problem.”

Long said since he took office in January 2016 local leaders have addressed this concern by first creating a Community Drug Steering Committee.

“This SUD issue needs to be tackled at the root cause, mental health, and we are doing our level best to partner with agencies to provide wrap-around services to help those people with SUD. To begin to eliminate the ‘crisis, ’we have to provide counseling through our mental health agencies to find out what it is that makes them turn to illicit substances to exist in life,” said Long. “If we can help SUD dependent people before they commit offenses that land them in jail, we lessen the burden on our judicial system and jail, assist them in getting jobs once they establish a life without substance dependency, teach them life skills in the settings we are providing, and giving them a sense of self-worth. There is no ‘one ’thing that we can do, it is a myriad of things that we have to accomplish to tackle this issue.”

Custer-Mitchell started the group back in 2016.

“I think there’s been a problem in every community in the country for years. Communities are doing more, Wabash County included, to get together and get organized,” said Custer-Mitchell. “The Drug Steering Committee isn’t a formal committee. We’re just a group in the community that has been meeting since 2016 to try to figure out what we can do to make things better.”

Custer-Mitchell said the group does education in the schools, in addition to other programs.

“You’ve got a treatment committee that has got some peer recovery coaches in place for people in court services. And then the transition committee is the committee that has been working on the women’s recovery house and getting that up and going,” said Custer-Mitchell.

Bowen Center director Danielle Gargiulo said she and the other members of the group “come together as a community” to find solutions.

“You look at ways to educate our community in substance use and in recovery. What resources we need to figure out?” said Gargiulo. “We’re doing education with our high schools … trying to do that early prevention to help our kiddos to understand addiction. A lot of their parents might be in it too even if they’re not. So they’re already in that world. … Just constantly trying to figure out how can we prevent and is there any way to get ahead of it together as a community. Because that’s the only way. We have to come together.”

Faith-based recovery

New Beginnings Ministries of Wabash County is a faith-based men’s recovery home that began over a decade ago. Executive director Joe Scafani said the organization can house up to eight men at a time who are struggling with drug and alcohol addictions.

“We ask them to commit to a year,” said Scafini.

Scafini said the program is a combination of Bible studies with meetings of Narcotics Anonymous (NA) and Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

Scafini said they see “a lot of childhood trauma with most of the guys that I have dealt with here.” Scafini said he knows the struggle from first-hand experience as he is a recovering addict and alcoholic.

“Past trauma is probably a number one issue. I see a lot of guys now and a lot of people now are second and third-generation addicts and alcoholics,” said Scafini.

Scafini said New Beginnings is an abstinence-based, 12-step recovery program combined with Biblical principles and life skills.

“I came up through AA, 12-step recovery,” said Scafini. “I believe it’s got a great deal to give.”

Scafini said there are different avenues and approaches that “are equally as helpful.”

“I think the mistake is made when one particular avenue thinks they’re the best or the only way or thinks that everybody makes it in their program because different people need different things,” said Scafini. “Some people need some medical help for a while. I think my opinion is that all recovery should lead people to an abstinence-based result in the end. Whether they need medication to get to that point or they’re able to go more of a cold turkey route, I think the end result should be pure sobriety.”

Scafini said while they are a faith-based recovery center, “you don’t have to be a Christian to come here.”

“But we are going to have Bible studies and church and stuff. We just ask that you participate and that you get out of it everything that you can. Ask questions. But we’re not going to force somebody in or out because they’re a Christian or not a Christian,” said Scafini.

Brianna’s Hope is a faith-based recovery group that meets weekly at the First United Methodist Church. Andrea Bakehorn said the group is geared for anyone struggling with any type of drug addiction.

“We don’t push our faith but we just let them know God will help change things, but nobody’s required to have that,” said Bakehorn.

Scafini said the success of the particular participant was dependent upon their willingness to recognize the need to change their lives.

“They’re willing to do what it takes if they going to be able to stay clean and sober. It has less to do with statistics and more to do with where a person is at,” said Scafini. “Have they hit bottom? Are they really ready to do the work? Are they really ready to recover? And I find if people are doing for the right reasons then the main right reason is to do it for themselves because they realize they need it and they’re the problem then they have a much better chance than doing it for many other reasons.”

Women’s recovery center

Custer-Mitchell said a new transitional home is also being planned to open early this year.

Waypoint is a transitional living environment dedicated to promoting a healthy lifestyle for women living in sobriety.

Led by a local volunteer board of directors, the organization is seeking funding for the renovation phase of the new facility located at 189 N. Wabash St. Through a partnership with the city of Wabash and the Waypoint Board of Directors, the property was purchased from Indiana Landmarks and is currently being renovated to serve as a place where women can learn to live in sobriety while in transition.

“That is not open yet, but our goal is to open by the middle of the year … for women leaving in-patient rehab or jail or prison that want to continue recovering,” said Custer-Mitchell. “They need a safe place. They need structure. They need to re-learn some life skills. They have to get a job. All those kinds of things. That’s kind of what New Beginnings does for men. That will open later this year.”

Unresolved trauma

Gargiulo said the majority of the people they see are “self-medicating or coping due to trauma.”

Peterson-Stephan said the Bowen Center’s “Seeking Safety” group “speaks specifically to the trauma aspect.”

“Trauma is very often associated with addiction and we can argue chicken or the egg there,” said Peterson-Stephan. “Sometimes it’s an addiction that leads people even into further trauma, but oftentimes people have experienced various traumatic events in their life and for lack of knowing what else to do, they choose to self-medicate or treat that trauma with substances.”

Parkview Wabash Hospital substance use outpatient treatment program director Joel Makin said many patients are dealing with depression, anxiety, PTSD and other mental disorders.

Makin said their moral recognition therapy (MRT) is scheduled one day a week in both the morning and evening and is “a trauma-informed treatment.” Makin said they also have a mental health group that runs during the evenings, among other groups.

“They can kind of transition from the use the drugs for that need and they’re able to identify some of those key needs that have gone unmet probably and caused some of this stuff and or have eroded over time because of using it,” said Makin. “That’s my favorite part is that deep processing. In every group, we have that and that’s kind of the standard. The first half we do that educational and the second half we do that kind of deeper processing.”


In addition to existing trauma, Peterson-Stephan said over-prescription of opioids by doctors is “a very real issue.”

Custer-Mitchell said there while there was “no doubt” that that over-prescription “occurred everywhere across the country,” Parkview Health’s Parkview Physicians Group (PPG) monitors opioid prescriptions by each physician.

“They track it. They trend it. They watch it,” said Custer-Mitchell. “If they see anybody prescribing more than they used to or a little higher than others they sit down and have a conversation and look at the patients involved and make sure that things are appropriate. … We want a physician to monitor that and they know what they’re looking for and they can review charts and make sure that things are appropriate.”

Peterson-Stephan said methamphetamines being so prevalent also affected opioid use.

“We have patients who will report that they would go to an opioid to help them get off the meth or vice versa,” said Peterson-Stephan. “They would use meth to get off of the opioid because they kind of counterbalanced each other. Stimulant and a depressant and trying to wean yourself one off of the other.”

Intensive outpatient programs

Custer-Mitchell said they have an intensive outpatient program (IOP) for those continuing their recovery.

“They’re here for three hours a day three times a week for outpatient therapy,” said Custer-Mitchell. “It’s really grown on us. It’s just bloomed. Fortunately and unfortunately.”

Peterson-Stephan said the Bowen Center also has an intensive outpatient treatment program.

“That’s for individuals who have a high risk of relapse and maybe had multiple episodes of treatment and aren’t quite to go to residential or maybe residential addiction treatment isn’t available,” said Peterson-Stephan.

Peterson-Stephan said this program is set up for nine hours a week of clinical intervention “to help them obtain and sustain their recovery efforts.”

“Sometimes it’s about the intervention and sometimes it’s about the delivery model,” said Peterson-Stephan. “Sometimes … it takes a lot of time, and so they’re seeing someone every day almost every day they have someone, a clinical touch-point. They have more structure to help keep them in their recovery patterns and make sure that they’re staying on track with that.”

Medication-assisted treatments

Custer-Mitchell said about a year ago Parkview Wabash Hospital also opened a medication-assisted program.

“If people are in recovery and using a medication to assist them as they move along,” said Custer-Mitchell. “We do that clinic with a psychiatrist to see the patient and diagnoses and doses.”

Custer-Mitchell said they have also started a medical detoxification program at Parkview Wabash Hospital in their in-patient unit.

“If somebody needs to detox, they want to go to an outpatient rehab or something, they can call and we screen them and if they meet the criteria and all we will provide that detox here,” said Custer-Mitchell. “It’s obviously medically supervised. They’re in a safe place.”

Makin said the Parkview Wabash Hospital medication-assisted treatment includes Vivitrol, suboxone and naltrexone.

Makin said in addition there is also other drugs used that have side effects or off-label use. For example, the anti-depressant Wellbutrin, or bupropion, is often used for methamphetamine addiction.

Gargiulo said at the Bowen Center, their psychiatrists are all certified with mediation-assisted treatment.

“They are knowledgeable with prescribing different medications that can help people, especially with opioid addiction specifically,” said Gargiulo.

Gargiulo said once patients are in the program, a doctor will also connect them to an outpatient treatment depending on their needs.

“It could be individual therapy, family therapy and we also offer a wide variety of substance abuse groups,” said Gargiulo. “They’re all evidence-based. They’re based on different curricula over time that has been proven over time to work. … It can vary greatly on why someone is struggling. We’ve actually implemented, depending on the person. Every person’s treatment is individualized. … It may be something where they’ve actually been sober for a long time and they need some lower-intensity services.”

Peterson-Stephan said medication-assisted treatments had become “very stigmatized” in the wider culture.

“Sometimes people don’t like medication-assisted treatment because, for instance, suboxone is itself an opioid, but when it is properly administered and you have a doctor’s oversight, it’s a long, long-acting opioid and it really helps people maintain their recovery,” said Peterson-Stephan.

Makin said these misconceptions have led to a significant amount of unnecessary pain and suffering.

“I think it’s partially responsible for a lot of overdoses and death because you can’t treat a dead patient,” said Making. “That’s been a big push. It is, ‘How do we buy time so we can do work with them?’”
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