• October 22, 2019

Experts: Poverty fueling county opioid epidemic - Ocean City Sentinel: News

Experts: Poverty fueling county opioid epidemic

Childhood trauma, lack of year-round jobs, affordable housing drive addiction

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Posted: Wednesday, October 9, 2019 10:48 am

CAPE MAY — The county’s lack of year-round employment and affordable housing has created a cycle of unemployment and poverty that is feeding the opioid epidemic, according to a panel of experts.

Sponsored by Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey and the Horizon Foundation for New Jersey, a town hall meeting billed as Knock Out Opioid Abuse was held Oct. 2 in Convention Hall.

The event was moderated by Paul Rotella, CEO and president of the New Jersey Broadcaster’s Association. Partners in the event were the city of Cape May, Cape Assist, Cape May County Chamber of Commerce and Cape Regional Health System.

In the audience were students from the hospitality program of Cape May County Technical High School and culinary students from Lower Cape May Regional High School. Law enforcement officials from the county, Middle Township and Cape May were also in attendance. 

“I am sadly stunned when I think of how many people that I know that have suffered in some way because of opioids,” Cape May Mayor Chuck Lear said.

Cape May Fire Chief Alex Coulter said emergency medical technicians wear special gloves that are resistant to Fentanyl and masks when entering a situation where it’s believed an opioid has been abused or is present. All the city’s ambulances carry NARCAN, the antidote for an opioid overdose.

“The amounts of NARCAN we’ve actually gone through since the program began is very disturbing to us,” Coulter said.

Vicki Clark, president and CEO of the county Chamber of Commerce, said long, grueling hours of working in the tourism industry can contribute to the substance abuse crisis here. 


Childhood trauma

leads to addiction


Joe Faldetta, director of prevention for Cape Assist, said there is no “silver bullet” or one strategy that would solve the opioid crisis. He said his agency has seen success in prevention of addiction in youth by focusing on resiliency and life skills and effective ways to deal with stress and anxiety.

“What we’re seeing more of is cycles of trauma, or what we’re referring to as adverse childhood experiences (ACES),” Faldetta said. “And what we have is a lot of youth that are being exposed to repeated trauma, day in and day out, as perhaps they’re either living in a household where there is somebody addicted or they’re living in a household where there’s abuse or where there is neglect.”

He said repeated exposure to trauma makes it much more likely victims will develop a substance abuse problem. Faldetta said by promoting healthy coping skills, by providing youth with good decision-making skills, goals for the future and surrounding them with trusting relationships, ACES can be counterbalanced.

He said the hospitality industry is a high-risk occupation and students need to be prepared to be resilient in that occupation and be able to cope with the stresses of the job without using drugs and alcohol.

Brian Leach, a local business owner and a person in long-term recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, told the audience he began drinking and smoking marijuana at the age of 7. 

“By the age of 8, I was putting needles in my arm,” he said. “I no longer played with toys and watched cartoons, I played with bottles and drugs.”

Leach said his father was an alcoholic. 

“I was arrested at 11 for selling drugs on a street corner in North Philadelphia,” Leach said. “That started my journey through the juvenile system.”

When he was 12, his mother put him out of the house, he said. 

“When I was 18, I graduated to jails and penitentiaries,” Leach said.

He said he would rob drug dealers, sell drugs and steal cars for money. Leach moved to Cape May County at the age of 23 and once again went to jail.

Trips to rehab and detox totaled about 40, he said. In 2005, he was out on bail on criminal charges from Pennsylvania and worked on getting sober.

Leach said he had a difficult time getting a job when he returned to Cape May County despite being skilled in construction. He started his own contracting business and relapsed due to continuing pain from a motorcycle accident. Leach said he was sent to rehab and counseling through drug court.

Thomas Piratzky, executive director of Cape Regional Foundation, said the foundation was awarded a grant to look at creating a culture of health in Cape May County. He said a core team was assembled that included himself, Middle Township Police Chief Chris Leusner, Clark and educator Chris Kobik.

“Everything kept going back to adverse childhood experiences,” Piratzky said.

“Unfortunately, Cape May County has one of the highest rates of adverse childhood experiences in the state of New Jersey,” he continued. “We felt this is where we wanted to start our program; it’s been a real eye opener.”

Piratzky said ACES goes from one generation to the next unless something is done to break the cycle. Children are giving a 10-question survey. He said if a child scores more than two on the survey, they probably have some effects from ACES and their chances of becoming addicted is two- to four-fold.

“We have kids that have five and six ACES on their score, which means they have a terrible chance of becoming addicted to drugs or alcohol,” Piratzky said. “In our community, we also have one of the highest rates of physical abuse and neglect, another prime factor that we see in our ACES scores for creating some of the problems that we have.”

He said children watching their parents abuse alcohol and opiates has a direct correlation to them becoming addicts and creating a traumatic experience. Piratzky said there is likely a 20 percent greater chance of having chronic disease for persons experiencing ACES and a 10- to 20-year shorter life expectancy.

Rotella read a question for an attendee asking the panel how the county’s economy, which is based in large part in the tourism and hospitality industry, affects the opioid epidemic’s impact on the area. Clark said the epidemic creates workforce issues for businesses.

She said the county has high unemployment during the offseason, which has a negative effect on the community and contributes to substance abuse issues. Those issues hinder workers preparing to return to work at the start of the tourist season, Clark said.

“We have not enough jobs year round, we have not enough people in the height of the season to fill the jobs that we have,” she said. “It’s very cyclical, it goes on and on and on. It just feeds on itself; we have to break the cycle.”


Providing assistance


Rotella asked what was being done to address the lack of medically assisted treatment in the area and a lack of insurance among residents. Faldetta said a person with insurance can receive treatment for substance abuse.

For those on Medicaid or without insurance, there can be a waiting period of one or two weeks for a bed to become available in a facility, he said. 

“If you have somebody who has the motivation to get treatment, you want to capitalize on that immediately. The last thing you want to do is say ‘We can’t help you now, come back in two weeks,’” Faldetta said. 

He said there are outpatient treatment facilities in the area that can start an individual on a high level of care, about 10 hours of counseling per week. Faldetta said it is important to get an opioid abuser to connect to treatment as quickly as possible.

The county’s Hope One van is a good resource for treatment sources, he said. After rehab, an individual may need to move to a new occupation, learn new skills, make new friends, find a new place to live or reconnect with their families with whom they may have become alienated, Faldetta said.

Coulter said the opioid epidemic affects all ages, noting his department has used NARCAN on persons in their 60s and 70s.

Leach suggested hospitals discontinue opioids for patients before they go home, substituting a nonaddictive pain reliever. 

“I’ve seen this thing affect people from all walks of life from Park Avenue to park bench,” he said.

Opiates may be prescribed following a medical procedure, sometimes resulting in an addiction for the patient, Leach said. Faldetta said for most persons, there is a tolerable level of pain “rather than medicating everything down to a zero.”

Jeff Schwartz, a culinary instructor at Lower Cape May Regional High School, said he has students whose parents are heroin addicts, students who have parents who are in jail and students whose parents are dead. 

He said 43 percent of the students in the school are from families living in poverty. 

“I think Cape May County is in the top two or three of everything that can be for the most part considered negative, besides the poverty, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, domestic abuse, senior citizen abuse,” Schwartz said.

The county has only one psychiatrist, he said. 

“I don’t see changes, I think it’s getting worse,” Schwartz said. 

Leach said it would be helpful to have an outreach center here for those in recovery and people seeking help. 

“It all takes time, it takes people and it takes money,” he said. 

When there is talk of opening a center, the response is ‘I don’t want it in my neighborhood,’ Leach said. He noted Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and Alateen groups meet in the county. Group therapy is also available.

“There’s a lot more help than there used to be,” Leach said.

Alexandria, a senior at the county Technical High School in the travel and tourism program, said she saw students addicted to drugs who don’t realize they have a problem because they are not being educated on the topic.  

“There’s kids that overdose in chemistry class. What are we doing to help these kids?” she asked.

Clark said one of the factors that ranks the county so high in ACES is the number of children in foster care. 

“The No. 1 reason that children are living in out-of-home placement is because of substance abuse,” she said.

Laura, a family support worker at Healthy Families, said substance abuse is a multilevel issue. She said more work needs to be undertaken on the issue of year-round employment and fighting poverty here.

“I do think that poverty is a root cause,” she said. “There is not a lot of affordable housing here.”

Laura noted hundreds of families use more than 30 food pantries in the county. 

Clark said many businesses have worked hard to extend the tourist season. She said the county is encouraging drone and high-tech business development.

“That’s going to require that our local workforce seek the education and the training that’s going to be needed for those industries,” she said.

Clark said the community has to get off the “unemployment lifestyle of working four or five months and going on unemployment.” She said there were employers present at the event that had trouble filling year-round positions such as mechanics and front desk management.

Some of those positions are being filled by residents coming from out of the county because of the generational habits in this county, she said.

“We need to realize if we want these things, we have to be prepared to change our lifestyles and our habits,” Clark said.

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