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In One Ohio County, Police Go Door-To-Door For Drug Interventions

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Seth Herald
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Side Effects Public Media
Members of PORT, the Post Overdose Response Team, leave the home where a resident overdosed last week.

Officer Ron Meyers drives down a dirt road in rural Ross County. As he passes each home, he slows down and squints, searching for an address. Out here the house numbers are written on the front of homes in marker, or in faded numbers clinging to old mailboxes. There’s no GPS.  

Meyers isn’t in pursuit of a criminal, and he’s not responding to a call for 911. He’s looking for the home where someone overdosed last week.

Every Wednesday morning, members of the Post Overdose Response Team, or PORT, meet at the Ross County Sheriff's department. There’s a police officer, a deputy, a nurse from the Ross County Health District, and an addiction services counselor from a local treatment center.

Together, they look into overdoses reported during the previous week and then set out to follow-up with each person.

The objective: getting people into addiction treatment.

Proactive

After a string of fatal overdoses last year, leaders in this Southern Ohio county had had enough. A group of stakeholders met and decided to develop a program that essentially brings a drug intervention to the doorstep of a struggling addict.

With few resources and a small budget, Ross County is trying a proactive approach that appears to be working.

Since the start of 2017, PORT has knocked on the doors of nearly 250 homes, and gotten more than 30 people into treatment.

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Credit Seth Herald / Side Effects Public Media
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Side Effects Public Media
Officer Ron Meyers drives through Ross County to follow up with residents who have recently overdosed.

Deputy Dave Weber has been with PORT since it began. He says before PORT, they had to follow up with dozens of overdoses in a single day. Since then, the number of overdoses seems to be falling.

“Last week we had one [overdose],” Weber says. “The week before, we had three maybe, and this week we’ve actually got just two.”

Knocking On Doors

Whether it will last remains to be seen, but it’s good news for a county that just last year reported one of the highest fatal overdose rates in Ohio.

Back out on the dirt road, Meyers says PORT offers law enforcement a less-traditional role. Rather than make arrests, his job is to understand addiction and offer people a potential solution.

“You have to solve the problem,” Meyers says. “Why are people doing this, what can we do to get them off of it?”

If a person lacks transportation, an officer will drive them to treatment. If beds are full in the surrounding area, as can often be the case, an officer will drive them to a facility across state lines.

Meyers turns left at a Winnebago camper. Tucked behind it is the address he’s looking for. The rest of the PORT team pulls up in a separate car. Together, the group of five walk up to the double-wide trailer and knock at the front door.

One of PORT’s biggest challenges is getting the person on the other side to open up - about 50 percent of all attempted visits don’t result in any interaction.

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Credit Seth Herald / Side Effects Public Media
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Side Effects Public Media
Jessica Lutz outside her new home in Chillicothe, Ohio, with son Jace.

"Grateful"

Jessica Lutz remembers when they showed up at her home. The deputy was not in his full uniform. In PORT, law enforcement wear a black polo and khakis to appear less intimidating.

Peering through the blinds, Lutz knew exactly who the officer was.

“I saw an officer and then I saw this woman and I thought, 'Oh crap what did I do now?'” Lutz says.

At the time, Lutz was 30 and had been struggling with opioid addiction for 12 years. She was living with her parents and had tried to get clean before. A few months earlier, Lutz was arrested for stealing her parents' car to buy heroin.

She detoxed at the local hospital before turning herself into jail. After she was released, she relapsed.

On that day at her parents' house, Lutz says the social worker said exactly what she needed to hear and she buckled. Lutz told the women she wanted to go to inpatient treatment and the process of finding her a bed started that very day.  

“If I wouldn’t have answered that door or talked to them, I don’t even know if I’d be alive,” Lutz says.  

On a warm October day, Lutz is home with her one-year-old son, Jace. He runs around the kitchen as she fills his bottle with grape juice. When she went away for nearly a year of inpatient treatment, Jace was still a newborn.

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Credit Seth Herald / Side Effects Public Media
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Side Effects Public Media
Lutz says she's adjusting to being a mom and spending time at home with her kids.

Now that she’s been back home for a few months, Jace has started to call Lutz "mom."

“He would say 'mom,' but he didn’t know who mom was,” Lutz says.

Lutz lives with her fiance, who is also a recovering addict, and is working on getting back custody of her two older daughters. While she looks for work, she stays home with Jace, cooks dinner and helps her daughters with homework.

“It might be a boring life to some people, but it’s stuff that I took for granted and I’m really grateful for these days," she says.

Lutz says PORT offers something most addicts are unable to do for themselves: access to resources.

“Most of us don’t want to wake up and do what we do each day, but we don’t know how not to," Lutz says.

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Credit Seth Herald / Side Effects Public Media
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Side Effects Public Media
31 year-old Jessica Lutz struggled with opioid addiction until she received help through PORT.

She remembers trying in vein to get herself into treatment. She’d call around to rehab centers, leave voicemails, and never hear back. PORT has established relationships and knows how to navigate the web of treatment options to get people the help they need.

A Trail Runs Cold

Back at the double-wide trailer, a woman in a t-shirt and jeans answers the door. The PORT team stands with her on her front porch talking for about 20 minutes.

They learn she’s the friend of the person who overdosed and there are no clues as to where that person is now. They leave the woman with several pamphlets on treatment options and information about addiction.

Officer Ron Meyers says he knows she might just throw them away, but he hopes she’ll read it.

This story was produced by a partnership between Side Effects Public Media and WOSU News.