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INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — What if a little device could help make the pain of withdrawal go away?

For Hoosiers dealing with opioid addiction, that just got a little easier. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration just made a big announcement that could impact people across Indiana and the rest of the nation.

State Sen. Jim Merritt, a Republican from Indianapolis, said, “I know someone who’s tried 20 times to get clean, and they can’t because of the incredible pain that comes with withdrawal.”

In January, Merritt introduced the Bridge Program to the criminal justice system to help addicts kick the habit and detox from heroin and other opiates. The main focus is a small device called the Bridge Device.

Merritt said, “This device takes all the pain out of withdrawal.”

Now, the FDA has cleared the way for commercial marketing of the device across the United States.

The device is pretty small; maybe an inch or so, about the size of a small matchbox or hearing aid. It is designed to attach right here, behind the ear.

Developed by Indiana-based Innovative Health Solutions, it is a small electrical nerve stimulator. It sends pulses to the brain and is meant to reduce opioid withdrawal symptoms like sweating, joint pain, nausea and agitation. It stays on for 5 days, making the withdrawal process less painful.

Merritt said, “There is hope and that’s what we need is hope. This will offer that person who is struggling with addiction, hope and a gateway to freedom.”

Greenwood Recovery Court was the first in the nation to offer the device. Judge Lewis Gregory, who presided over the court, saidm “We tell people if you come to us, ask us for help, you will get help.”

Gregory said they’ve offered it as an option for people put on drug-related probation since January. He said the device is working, pointing to 13 people who chose it. “Reports from nearly all of them have been that the bridge is very successful in almost totally eliminating the nausea. It cuts down on the pain probably at least by half.”

The device costs $499 plus $150 for a medical professional. It is only available by prescription.

FISHERS, Ind. (WISH) — On a Wednesday evening, people slowly trickled inside the Delaware Township Government Center. In the conference room, bags of Narcan were in bunches on top of the table.

The Hamilton County Health Department gave away the device with the medication naloxone that is used to block the effects of opioids or in cases of an overdose.

“We were able to provide the service for free and make them feel if they do have a family member on it they can save that family member’s life,” said James Ginder, an education specialist with the Health Department.

Narcan has a retail value of $75.

Agencies across central Indiana use the drug daily to revive those that overdose. From 2011-2016, Indianapolis Emergency Services handed out 5,800 doses of Narcan to opioid abusers. In that same time frame 27 percent were repeat offenders.

It appears the remaining 73 percent either recovered, died or are currently incarcerated.

24-Hour News 8 watched in the past as emergency medical services workers used Narcan on patients. Getting Narcan to those that need is not always easy, that is part of the reason why the Hamilton County Health Department is teaching classes on opioid abuse and showing others how to use it.

During the session, those in attendance listened intently as the instructor showed how to use the drug.

“The reason I’m getting the Narcan is for myself because I’m on pain meds,” said George Martin.

Martin attended the Narcan giveway for two reasons. He wanted to know how to use Narcan in case he suffered some type of side effects. Also, over the years, Martin has seen people overdose from heroin. He added that each year he sees more and more people who have overdose on opioids.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has estimated 175 people die each day from the opioid crisis. President Donald Trump tapped Christie to chair a commission designed to provide solutions to opioid abuse in America.

Christie shared that in New Jersey his state will spend $500 million on addressing the opioid crisis. He also added that, in New Jersey, the first person someone who overdoses sees when they regain conscious is a drug counselor.

The Indiana Attorney General’s Office invited Christie in to speak during the eighth annual Prescription Drug Abuse and Heroin Symposium.

“We are the most sedated and medicated country in the world,” Christie said.

Those are among the reasons the Hamilton County Health Department is giving away Narcan to help those struggling with the opioid crisis.

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Babies are dying in our state, and it’s up to us to stop it.

More than 1,000 people were in Indianapolis Wednesday for the annual Labor of Love Infant Mortality Summit.

Arielle Lopez brought her 6-month-old daughter to the summit to learn.

“I’m hoping to learn how to prevent and how to help spread the word [and] how to educate other families so this doesn’t happen to them or anyone that anyone knows,” Lopez said.

Wednesday’s lessons addressed the effects of opioids on our state’s mothers and babies.

“Those symptoms can include jitteriness, irritability, poor feeding, poor growth [and] crying uncontrollably, because they’re really going through withdrawal from not having mom’s drugs that she was using in her system,” Kristina Box, the Indiana State Health Commissioner, said.

Doctors said the danger doesn’t stop there for moms around the nation.

Dr. Michael Lu, senior associate dean for academic faculty and student affairs at George Washington University said they have increasing reports of maternal deaths from overdoses in the postpartum period because her access to medication and assistance treatment gets discontinued.

Indiana’s State Health Commissioner said they’re in a pilot program with 26 hospitals across the state. The program tests women in their first trimester with a urine drug sample and babies they feel are at risk after delivery.

“Unfortunately, we’re seeing that nearly 16 percent of our umbilical cords on the baby after delivery are coming back positive for opiates. Greater than 20 percent are coming back positive for marijuana,” Box said.

People also learned about breastfeeding, smoking dangers, safe sleep practices and cultural birthing norms at the summit.

“We’re learning about stigma and how every individual has an opportunity to be part of the solution,” Jennifer Walthall, secretary of the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration, said.

“Don’t use. If you are, get help early. Don’t neglect this,” Jim McClelland, Executive Director of Drug Prevention, Treatment and Enforcement for the State of Indiana, said.

Indiana also launched a new free pregnancy help app called “Liv” that is free in the Apple and Android stores.

\Next year’s event is scheduled for Nov. 14.

To learn more about the Labor of Love Summit, click here.

GREENWOOD, Ind (WISH) — Treating addicts with methadone will soon be an option at Valle Vista Health System drug treatment facility in Greenwood.

It’s part of the governor’s plan to crack down on the heroin epidemic, and the Greenwood Police Department is strongly opposed to the plan.

The department is concerned about crime rising. According to Kortney Burrello of the Greenwood Police Department, they already have problems there. In October, she said, officers were called to the facility 26 times. They respond to more calls there than anywhere else in the city.

But the police department isn’t the only one voicing concerns.

Roscoe’s Tacos claim to fame is they can make tacos like nobody else.

“It’s really simple, basic stuff,” Manager Terry Carpenter said. “But it’s really good food for a good price and you get a lot of it.”

The Greenwood location is just one of four and stays busy. Carpenter said that’s due in part to its location. “Greenwood is a great place. They’re redoing downtown to make it more friendly for the community.”

But, the city is about to get less friendly, Carpenter said he believes, when Valle Vista Health Systems begins offering methadone. They’re slated to do that by June of next year.

“We can’t assume that 100 percent of these people are going to become clean and good people. Not that they’re bad people, but, yea, someone is going to fail and that’s going to cause problems,” Carpenter said.

Burrello agreed. “We don’t like it. We don’t want it to come here.”

“The state is now burdening the city with adding this methadone clinic.”

Gov. Eric Holcomb made the announcement about the expansion of opioid treatment during a news conference in July. Along with Greenwood, four other facilities around the state will also offer methadone. Officials said Valle Vista would have to see at least 300 patients per day to meet its minimum patient quota.

“They come in, they take their medication and they leave high. So that means 300 additional people in our city, high on a daily basis,” Burrello said.

Burrello said they receive hundreds of calls a year from the facility. She said she believes offering methadone could have a snowball effect on crime.

“Those people could be out doing petty crimes; stealing. They’re just not making their contribution to our community,” she said.

In comparison, the Indianapolis Treatment Facility on the city’s northeast side also offers methadone. According to Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, from January through November, it responded to eight calls from that address. Greenwood, however, is expected to see more than three times as many patients.

“There’s fear. But, I think when these programs are well-managed, my belief is those fears would be unfounded,” the state’s first drug czar, Jim McClelland.

McClelland said they have not spoken to Greenwood police or other leaders in the community, but, he defends the program.

“We’ve got to do the best we can with what we have and make the best decisions we can and try to save as many people as we can,” he said.

It’s a sentiment Carpenter, back at Roscoe’s Tacos, agreed with — even if he disagrees that methadone is the way to get there.

“Switching from one brand of cigarettes to another isn’t going to help you quit. So, one narcotic for another isn’t going to help either,” he said.

WISH-TV reached out to Valle Vista several times. Its operators did not return our requests for comment.

Greenwood Police Department will be meeting with a neighborhood crime watch group at the end of this month to prepare the community for the changes.

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — The opioid epidemic impacts so many families across central Indiana, and many of the impacts involve children caught in the middle of the crisis.

Programs aimed at helping them are seeing more cases than ever with no additional resources.

Jessica Smith is a mother of two children. She and her husband became foster parents in March and have taken in three children.

“If you saw these precious children we take into our homes and how much they look at you and adore you, it’s just there’s no words to describe it,” said Smith, who lives in Delaware County.

Many of those children are being forced into the court system and foster homes because of the opioid epidemic.

“They don’t deserve it. It’s not fair. It’s unfortunate and, not only that, there’s a lack of resources for these parents to get better to get their children back,” Smith said.

A lack of resources, including rehabilitation, Smith said it keeping children in the foster care system much longer.

“It’s tragic that these innocent children have to suffer for the choices that their parents it’s sad,” Smith said.

“We need people. We need people so badly to help. I cannot stress that enough,” she said.

Organizations like Advocates for Children feels that need. It provides volunteers who are court-appointed special advocates (CASA) to represent the best interest of the child in court.

“We’ve  just seen an explosion in the number of children that are entering the system,” said Rick Scalf, who is the community outreach coordinator for Advocates for Children.

Over the past five years, the agency doubled the number of children served in Bartholomew, Decatur and Jennings counties and broke a record last year with 841 children.

“Primarily, it says that we’re facing an epidemic of addictions in this state. Ninty-five percent of our caseload right now is directly related to families that are suffering with that issue,” Scalf said.

He said it is a struggle to find volunteers but, with help from a grant, the agency hired a full-time staff to take on the caseload.

“There’s a shortage so you have to do what you have to do,” said Bud Herron, who is a guardian ad litem.

Herron said over the past two years he’s worked with 96 children in more than 70 cases.

“There are times when you get them into a placement and possibly into an adoption and that really does save their lives. Many other times, particularly with the older children, you have to keep in mind that you’re going to make things better,” Herron said.

Herron knows the epidemic needs to be addressed, from treatments to mental health facilities, before it can get any better for children.

“There’s no option to this we have to help if we don’t help we’re going to be worst and worst trouble as time goes on,” said Herron.

Click here if you would like to learn more about being a foster parent.

Click here if you would like to learn more about being a CASA volunteer.

RICHMOND, Ind. (WISH) — Reid Health hospital administrators report an increase in opioid-dependent babies born in their hospital in 2017, but say significantly less are addicted to street drugs like heroin.

In 2015 Reid Health, reported 54 neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) babies were born in their facility, referring to infants who had received enough opioids through their mother via umbilical cord to develop a physical dependence on the drug. Reid Health reports that number increased to 58 in 2016, and as of November 1, 2017, administrators report 84 babies had NAS.

“Fussiness, extreme fussiness, tremors of their hands and their feet,” described Casey Callahan, a nurse at Reid Health. “Spitting up, muscle tone that’s really, really tight, really tense.”

“These mothers feel very guilty. Very guilty about what’s happened. Sometimes I don’t know that everybody really understands that part of it.”

Callahan explained babies receive doses of morphine and are rocked for days or weeks during their withdrawal period by a team of volunteer “baby rockers.”

“You just keep thinking, if I can help in some small way, and rocking is it,” said Becky Jewison, director of volunteer services. “But you want to help so badly to get rid of it.”

While Reid Health hasn’t gotten rid of the opioid problem in their area, administrators say the game is changing for the better.

“The last four months we’ve had zero positive tests for heroin,” said Lisa Suttle, director of strategic initiatives for community and psychiatric services. “We are seeing that mothers coming in are testing positive for suboxone and methadone, which is medication-assisted treatment. That makes us feel better because usually they’re in some type of treatment and there’s oversight being provided for those medications.”

While Suttle admits you can get suboxone and methodone on the streets, she says they are powerful tools in combating heroin addictions.

“These mothers feel very guilty. Very guilty about what’s happened. Sometimes I don’t know that everybody really understands that part of it,” said Suttle. “I had the opportunity this past summer to work with a mother who was taking methadone and with the help of the Richmond Treatment Center, we weaned her off the methadone and got her to a place where she was not using opioids.”

Jewison adds she hasn’t called in a baby rocker volunteer since August.

“As much as they absolutely love rocking, they understand and are so pleased maybe when they’re not needed,” smiled Jewison.

Suttle says a mother recovering from an opioid addiction is often approved to rock her baby herself, once nurses determine a low risk of falls or other dangers to the newborn.

“That bonding is very important for the mother and the baby. And I say that specifically for these mothers too. Sometimes people think that’s not important to them — it’s at the top of their list,” Suttle said.

Nurses say Reid Health’s comprehensive treatment program is to thank for the recent change.

“I think getting the word out preventatively is helping. And seeing these moms or even women in a treatment center, being proactive about birth control and working on those things I think have really helped,” said Callahan.

“Letting the mothers know there are other methods of treatment that we can help them with,” adds Suttle. “Not just automatically telling them they need to go cold turkey or there’s nothing that we can do to help you. Many times that keeps a mother using heroin.”

Suttle says Reid Health will continue to expand its treatment program to see better outcomes at the Reid Health Family Birthing Center.

“Once they deliver then our goal is to be able to wean them off the suboxone or methadone,” said Suttle. “We’re partnering with our community mental health centers in our area, Centerstone and Meridian, and then all of the agencies that can help that mother with food, shelter, clothing, child care, work opportunities. All of those things.”

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Indiana’s opioid addiction is seeping its way deep into our state drug testing laboratories. Those labs are now deeply embedded in the fight to stop the deadly drugs. Those street drugs are so dangerous, scientists in the labs have to use tools you probably wouldn’t think of just to stay alive.

Grey death, Jackpot, TNT. Those are just a few street names of opioids circulating on Indiana streets that are killing Hoosiers.

Elizabeth Griffin is the South Zone Drug Unit Supervisor for the Indiana State Police laboratory.

“It’s really dangerous out there,” Griffin said.

Griffin works in the trenches of Indiana’s opioid addiction fight.

“We are seeing heroin, mixtures of heroin and fentanyl,” Griffin explained. “Acetylfentanyl, acrylfentanyl, carfentanil – which is the bull-elephant tranquilizer. It’s very, very strong.”

According to the Drug Enforcement Agency, Carfentanil is 10,000 times more powerful than morphine and 100 times as powerful as fentanyl.

“We’ve seen sometimes in a pinkish powder. We’ve seen white powder, tan powder, gray powder, even like a rock like chunky substance,” Griffin explained. “Any of that can contain any of these things.”

Hoosiers keep overdosing and dying.

“This is June, July, August, September, October, of just powdered items,” Griffin said as she showed the backlog. “Our backlog is large.”

About 3,000 cases, actually.

“We’re at a five-month turnaround right now. Because submissions of drug items and drug analysis are at an all-time high for the year,” Griffin explained. “Right now, we’re getting about 1,200 cases submitted per month. That’s for the whole lab.”

The synthetic, man-made drug, Fentanyl, is a huge concern. Griffin said in 2014, they saw 68 cases of it, 155 cases in 2015 and 263 cases last year.

“So far this year, we’ve seen 363 cases,” Griffin said. “We’ll probably see over 400 cases this year of items that were found to contain fentanyl.”

Inside these laboratories, Griffin said scientists are working new cases every single day. Usually 20-30 cases a week on opioids like fentanyl and heroin.

Griffin said officers in the field are told to be extremely careful if they even think they’re dealing with something fentanyl-related.

“We don’t want them to do a field test on it because of how dangerous it could be,” Griffin said.

In the lab, every scientist carries Narcan in their lab coat. Inside is naloxone, an antidote to opioids.

“If you have been overcome by fentanyl, it can bring you back,” Griffin explained.

Griffin shared photos from last summer, when kilograms of fentanyl were brought inside the lab. The forensic scientist wore a full, self-breathing suit.

“Definitely lab coats, gloves, disposable face masks, and the Narcan that we have in our lab coats,” She explained.

Bottom line, Griffin said they’re working tirelessly to identify and get the drugs off the streets and away from homes like yours.

We asked Griffin about hiring more forensic scientists to help get the work done. She said the State of Indiana has it in the budget to get new labs up and running in Fort Wayne, Lowell and Evansville with the next two to three years.

With those laboratories will come new scientists and employees. In terms of hiring new scientists in the labs in Indianapolis, Griffin said that’s uncertain.

Here are resources, contact information, and links you may find helpful.

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — The Hoosier in charge of fighting the state’s opioid epidemic said the crisis is only going to get worse.

There is no single face to the opioid crisis. The numbers are jaw-dropping. Opioid deaths are sky-rocketing in Indiana; overdoses are sending many more to hospitals; there’s a black hole of money from the epidemic.

On his first day in office in January, Gov. Eric Holcomb called it an epidemic and signed an executive order to create the first ever drug czar of Indiana. He named Jim McClelland, the former CEO of Goodwill Industries, to the post.

“It’s destroying lives and devastating families and damaging communities every day,” he said, nearly 10 months after starting on the job.

McClelland and his team have a 13-page blueprint to defeat the epidemic.

“This problem is enormous,” he said.

It’s a combination of treatment and prevention. It involves partnerships with state agencies, nonprofits, community groups, and hospitals. There are several grant applications and hopes for a $60 million federal waiver that would help Medicaid patients pay for opioid addiction treatment.

“Every indication that we’ve had from Washington, D.C. is that that will be approved,” said McClelland.

He said successes so far include the state’s five new treatment centers set to open, expanding Medicaid treatment coverage to methadone, and revamping the records system to track a patient’s prescription history.

So how’s he doing?

“I don’t know that there’s any way that we can be doing, that we can feel like no matter how much we’re doing, that it’s enough to meet what we would really like to do,” said McClelland. “That’s a function of resources primarily.”

His budget is only about $5 million. That’s why he said those partnerships and grants are so vital.

A few weeks ago President Trump could have freed up more federal money for to battle the epidemic. But he didn’t declare the opioid crisis a national emergency.

“More federal funds would be good. We don’t have them,” said McClelland.

When pushed if the president should have freed up those funds, he said, “I’m not going to second guess him on that.”

McClelland said this year laid the infrastructure in the opioid fight. But the road is long.

“Actually, we haven’t peaked,” he said, saying the epidemic will only get worse.

When will it start to get better? “I don’t know. I can’t predict,” he said.

“There are no quick solutions to it. There are no perfect solutions to it. And if we wait for perfect solutions, we’re never going to do anything.”

Next year’s focus turns to more treatment options and centers. But the mountains remain daunting: stigma associated with opioid addiction, high risk of relapse, astronomical cost and an end not in sight.

Many lives have been lost. Many others struggle to survive, leaving McClelland with a final message.

“We just can’t encourage them enough to get help. Reach out,” he said.

McClelland said the fight doesn’t end with recovery. He said there needs to be a way to keep people on that path.

The two keys are a decent place to live and a job.

McClelland said with so many in-demand jobs in Indiana, he hopes to work with companies to help these Hoosiers.

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Rheleane Hobbs has worked as a nurse for kids and babies and babies’ moms for more than 20 years.

“I love taking care of the babies, but I love taking care of pregnant moms,” she said.

But it was only in the last year, when she found the moms who needed her most.

“I’m sorry, I get emotional,” she said as she talked about her new job.

Those emotions come from a mom who has had the most unwanted kind of knock at her door.

“It was a police officer and they had said that my son was found down at a hotel and that he was on a ventilator and he had been there for 18 hours and they weren’t able to reach me and they found me through Facebook and they sent the officer down the street to tell me. We’re over an hour away, and told me that we may need to make some life-changing decisions and that he was very bad,” she said.

It was a drug overdose.

“For a mom, the thoughts that went through my mind,” she said.

32 days later, her son was out of the hospital. Three years later, he’s clean. And Rhelean is working with pregnant moms dealing with an addiction of their own.

“When my patients come and they’re here for opioids, one of the very first things I tell them is ‘I get it, I’ve been there and I’ve been that mom and I’m proud of you.'”

Those patients are part of a program that was started a few years ago to help pregnant women with opioid use disorder.

“We started to see these patients out of necessity, they started to show up because they needed care,” said Dr. Tara Benjamin, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist, who is also the director for the maternal recovery program at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health.

“When I started taking care of these women, I started to get mad because there’s social injustice surrounding their care. Actually, anybody with a substance use disorder, there’s social injustice surrounding their care and the madder I got, the more I wanted to fight this social injustice because they have a disease that’s just like high blood pressure or hypertension, but they aren’t treated the same way,” she said.

“They are stigmatized in society. Society still considers this a moral failure or character flaw, rather than considering it as a chronic disease like it is. If we were to accept it as a chronic disease and treat it like a chronic disease then we’d have much better outcomes as far as treatment goes.”

Since 2015, they’ve treated around 330 women. At any given time, she will be treating around 60 women, both pregnant and post par-tum. The women in the program are given Buprenorphine and they undergo counseling.

“I generally have two types of patients: there’s a patient that has been in recovery for awhile and her provider can no longer care for her because she’s pregnant and so she pretty much just transfers her care to me for the duration of the pregnancy so she can be provided with this kind of medication.  And there are patients that are actively using and have never really been in recovery. These patients usually come to us in the hospital in active withdrawal, we control their withdrawal, we asses them for behavioral complications, psychiatric conditions, any trauma history or any other complications that need to be treated in addition to opioid disorder and then we get them in our opioid program.”

Benjamin says its the women’s stories that keep her motivated to do her work.

“If I had experienced even half of what some of these women had experienced I would probably be on opioids myself,” she said.

Benjamin says pregnant women are “the least, the last, and the lost of the opioid epidemic.”

“Because there’s treatment for people with opioid-use disorder, but if you’re pregnant it’s hard to find treatment because one, doctors are scared of litigation as far as taking care of a pregnant woman and not having any obstetric background or doctors are not reimbursed adequately when women have certain types of medicaid that it is emergent medicaid so those are deterrents to treating pregnant women, if you’re an obstetrician, and the other side of the coin, obstetricians aren’t necessarily going to treat for addiction, so where are these women supposed to go to get treatment?” she said.

Something her program is hoping to change, with the help of nurses who have been there.

“I tell them, one day at a time, you can do this.'” Hobbs says.

For more information about the program, click here.

(WISH) — Needle exchange programs touted to slow the spread of disease among intravenous drug users have been criticized by some Hoosier lawmakers and halted in at least two Indiana counties, despite evidence-based support from groups including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Madison County officials voted to end funding for their clean syringe initiative in August, citing moral concerns and local skepticism of the program’s effectiveness.

Fred Reese, one of the council members who supported shutting the program down in the 5-2 vote, told 24-Hour News 8 it was “a very difficult decision.” The program had served Madison County for two years and provided more than 200,000 sterile syringes to about 500 people.

However, statistics show not all participants returned the needles distributed to them, officials said, sparking concern that the program functioned more like a hand-out than an exchange.

Leaders in Lawrence County echoed that concern when they, too, voted to end their needle exchange program in October.

“I cannot support the aiding and abating of illegal drug use,” explained Dustin Gabhart, one of the three Lawrence County commissioners who voted unanimously to eliminate the program.

He compared the logic behind the harm reduction initiative to “giving Maserati keys to a repeat speeding offender” or “buying lighters and gasoline” for a convicted arsonist.

“As trivial and funny as that sounds, that’s how the needle exchange program works,” Gabhart told 24-Hour News 8. “It just continues the bad behavior and enables more of it by reducing the stigma.”

He acknowledged heroin abuse had reached alarming levels throughout Lawrence County and said he would support the creation of a therapy-based program to address addiction, as long as it does not call for the distribution of illegal drug paraphernalia.

“We don’t need to give out more needles,” said Gabhart. “They’re everywhere.”

He said used syringes could be found on the ground at parks, trails, shopping center parking lots, gas stations and other public locations across the county.

Advocates called the elimination of the syringe exchange services in Madison and Lawrence counties “tragic.”

“We’re in the midst of the worst drug crisis in the history of the world,” announced Christopher Abert, a social worker at the Indiana Recovery Alliance.

The donation- and grant-funded organization was created in response to the 2015 HIV and hepatitis C outbreaks in Scott and Monroe counties that brought Hoosier drug abuse to the “center of international attention,” according to the group.

The Recovery Alliance distributes harm reduction supplies – including sterile needles and overdose reversal kits – and works to combat addiction with education, advocacy, low barrier outreach services and compassion.

“Addiction is not looked upon kindly in our society,” said Abert. “There are people publicly cheering on their deaths. I can’t think of another segment of our population that goes through that. When people come in, they’re stigmatized, they’re scared to ask for help [and] they think we’re going to judge them or turn them in to law enforcement.”

Instead, their meetings and needle exchange van are often “the only place some people get smiles all week.”

Brandon Drake, a former drug user who now works with the Alliance, said the group’s judgment-free approach created a safe space for him to feel worthy of living a full life – his first major step toward sobriety – even after a relapse that left him discouraged and ashamed.

“They came to check on me and just asked if I was okay,” he told 24-Hour News 8. “They never once said to me, ‘You’ve failed. We don’t believe in you anymore.’ Instead, they asked if I had [overdose reversal drug] naloxone and if I knew how to use it.”

Feelings of shame and failure to live up to society’s standards can trigger relapses or discourage an addict from seeking treatment, according to Drake.

“You hate yourself and you wonder, ‘What’s the point of trying to get clean?'” he explained. “That’s what happens when you treat [someone struggling with addiction] like a criminal and cut off their only support services… [The Indiana Recovery Alliance] was the only place that I found where I could find safety, be harbored from my own shame and be taught that I was still valuable to the community.”

Drake smiled as he recalled how he received not only sterile syringes from their needle exchange program, but also hope.

“They saved my life,” he said. “They don’t just hand you a needle and tell you to go get high. They have a conversation with you. They ask you how you’re feeling. They check if you’re being safe. They remind you that someone cares.”