Leahy hearing highlights neet to address opiate abuse in Vermont

RUTLAND — Monday was a good day for Karen Kane. While it was exciting and encouraging having Sen. Patrick Leahy hold a field hearing of his U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in Rutland on opiate abuse in Vermont, there was something even better. Just before the hearing began, Kane, of Brandon, learned that a spot opened up at the Mapleleaf Farm drug treatment center in Underhill for her 24-year-old son, a heroin addict.
“It only took 12 phone calls, but we got him in,” she said, her face tired but awash with relief. “Hopefully, he can stay the full 90days and get the help he needs.”
Kane’s was just one story among the roughly 200 parents, social workers, substance abuse counselors, attorneys and law enforcement officials who packed the conference room at the Howe Center Monday afternoon for the hearing. The issue has been front and center not only in Vermont but nationwide since January after Gov. Peter Shumlin devoted his entire State of the State speech to Vermont’s ever-deepening heroin and opiate abuse crisis.
The media attention was punctuated by a front-page story in The New York Times last week on drug problems in Bennington and in Rutland. Some local officials have taken issue with the Times coverage, which they say painted Bennington as a town ruined by drugs and did not emphasis enough the unique and positive steps being taken in Rutland to combat the problem.
Monday’s hearing was an effort by Leahy, D-Vt., to take testimony about the problem from officials who are working with kids, offenders and addicts, and to get their view on what’s working, and what’s not.
Opinions aside, the numbers don’t lie. Opiate addiction in the Green Mountain State has risen an astounding 770 percent since 2001, a statistic that figured prominently in Shumlin’s State of the State address.
Leahy, who will be 73 on March 31 and chairs the Judiciary Committee, is Washington’s most senior senator. His powerful position on Capitol Hill could help funnel much-needed funding to Vermont to help turn the opiate crisis around.
“We want to talk about how communities like Rutland can come together to solve this complex problem,” Leahy said in his opening remarks. “It goes into neighborhoods and communities of all sizes, and in rural areas alike, not just here in Vermont but around the country.”
Leahy was joined by fellow Vermont Democrat Rep. Peter Welch to hear testimony at the hearing.
Leahy said that while the statistics are staggering, it’s the people affected by the scourge of heroin that matter most.
“You can go with the numbers,” Leahy said. “But when you look at the people whose lives have been ruined or ended by this, it’s got to stop.”
Leahy also noted that law enforcement alone has not solved the problem, and highlighted Rutland’s multi-faceted approach of prevention, education and treatment coupled with an alternative sentencing structure to help non-violent addicts get their lives back. The Rapid Intervention program uses treatment options in exchange for a clean record. It also zeroes in on troubled homes in neighborhoods where heroin is known to be used, and works with city building codes enforcement, health inspectors and other city officials to shut down those houses and improve neighborhoods.
The two-hour hearing featured testimony from five key players on the front lines of the opiate crisis here: U.S. Attorney for Vermont Tristam Coffin, Rutland City Police Chief James Baker, Vermont Health Commissioner Harry Chen, Burlington Boys & Girls Club Executive Director Mary Alice McKenzie, and Vermont State Police Director Col. Tom L’Esperance.
It was McKenzie’s testimony that proved the most riveting. She said she and her staff sounded the alarm that something had changed in Burlington’s drug landscape about three years ago. The most disconcerting information came from children.
“Kids were afraid to walk home at night,” she said. “Kids were afraid to walk across the park, afraid to walk down North Street to their apartments. They told us of being harassed and assaulted by those under the influence of drugs.”
McKenzie said kids told her and her staff that they had been offered money to sell drugs. Fifteen-year-old girls confided that they had been offered money for sex by people who were selling drugs. Kids were telling them about people carrying guns who sold drugs.
“We were making more and more reports to (the state Department of Children and Families) about children who were being severely neglected because there was no food in the home because there was no money left for food to feed these children,” McKenzie said.
Boys & Girls Clubs across Vermont share the same mission whether they are very small and rural or serve several hundred children, ages 5-19, like Burlington.
“Our mission is to inspire and enable youth in our communities,” McKenzie said. “Especially those who need us most to realize their full potential as productive, healthy, caring and responsible citizens.”
McKenzie said she and her fellow Boys & Girls Club directors around Vermont have come to a heartfelt conclusion about that mission.
“We have concluded that because of what we are witnessing in our communities around addiction, that we cannot not engage,” McKenzie said. “Because if we don’t engage on pushing back on the trends that we see, we will violate our reason for being.”
McKenzie said that while the trends have gotten worse over the last decade, she believes, based on her experience working with police and social service officials in Burlington, that there is reason for hope.
“We believe that if we take coordinated and comprehensive community actions, we can make the difference.”
McKenzie said the club reached out to Boys & Girls Club headquarters, city officials, the United Way and Spectrum Youth Services in Burlington. Over time, McKenzie said, the club has developed policies and practices based on these partnerships to better support the health and well-being of the children who come through their doors. Transportation options and hours of operation have been expanded. The club is now open on Saturday nights for teens. Academic and music programming has been enhanced to include the hours of 3-6 p.m. when youth are most vulnerable to drugs. The club now serves dinner six nights a week.
“All of these things we did in direct response to what kids told us,” McKenzie said. “They have told us a lot. They have told us, ‘If you talk to me in high school about drugs, it’s way too late. I smoked, or my friends smoked their first joint when they were eight, or nine, or 10.’ Pick a number. It’s incredibly young. It’s shockingly young.”
McKenzie said that one segment of Vermont’s young population are the children born of the very drug dealers and traffickers who have been coming into the state from elsewhere for years.
“They have extensive networks here, and they have relationships here, and they have borne children here,” McKenzie said. “And their children, and the children born into the households that are highly addicted, are the most at-risk children in our community. We don’t have many tools in our toolbox to address these kids early and effectively until they are old enough to be arrested.”
McKenzie reiterated that funding has been key to expanding the club’s programs and it needs to be improved. She also said that while a unified community effort is an absolute necessity if Vermont intends to win the war against opiate abuse, good policing is key.
“Coordinated, well done law enforcement really, really matters,” she said. “We can’t all be on their shoulders. We have to do our work, but we have to allow them to do their work too, because without them, we don’t have a chance.”
Later on in the hearing, after all the testimony had been heard, Welch asked McKenzie what communities can do to help parents and kids make better choices. The Boys & Girls Club director was blunt.
“Well, I think adults can start acting like adults,” she said. “And take responsibility for their kids. Kids are like sponges, they pick up the messages, and if you tell them on one hand, ‘Don’t do drugs,’ but they see you on the other hand drinking a lot, using a lot of marijuana, they’re not going to believe you.”
During the hearing, Leahy made a point of urging Vermonters to submit additional written suggestions, observations and statements on the issue of heroin and opiate addiction to the Judiciary Committee to be entered into the record. Statements must be submitted by Friday, March 21, and are limited to 10 pages. Statements should be e-mailed to:
[email protected].
In closing, Leahy boiled the issue down to two key components: children and Vermont’s close-knit culture of community.
“We have tried to approach this as a non-partisan issue,” he said. “This is not a political issue. These are our children. Let’s work together. I think you know we’ll be there for you, because you’ve always been there for us.”

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