Atlantic County residents explore how to tackle opioid epidemic



GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Sandra Hannah wanted to know how people could do more to address the opioid and heroin epidemic in Atlantic County.

More than 100 others in attendance at the Knock Out Opioid Abuse town hall at Stockton University on Monday wanted to know, as well.

The town hall was filled with addiction-treatment experts, people recovering from substance use, legislators, law enforcement, community advocates, students and others.

“People say, not my kid, not my family, but that’s what you say until it happens to your kid, your family,” said Laurie Smith, community initiatives coordinator for Atlantic Prevention Resources.

The gathering, organized by Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey and Horizon Foundation for New Jersey, was one in a series of events taking place statewide to fuel discussion about the skyrocketing rates of addiction and overdoses.

Panelists included newly appointed Atlantic County Prosecutor Damon Tyner, who has said opioid abuse is one of the top issues facing the county.

Hannah, 51, of Atlantic City, asked what is being done in the county to increase supportive services for people still in recovery. A lot of the discussion revolved around what is being done in the state to not only support people in treatment, but after treatment.

Gov. Chris Christie announced in his State of the State address in January that there would be a bigger push to establish programs and resources such as sober-living homes and recovery coaches for people after detox and treatment.

“There is so much more needed when it comes to people in treatment, when they go and when they come back,” said Hannah, who has been in recovery for nearly 15 years. “If there’s a drug dealer on each corner, we need to be there on every corner as well.”

Kathy Gitto, of Washington Township, Burlington County, raised her daughter in Galloway Township. She lost her daughter Ashley in 2015 to a heart infection she contracted from a dirty needle filled with heroin.Gitto said her family came across multiple barriers when trying to get help for her daughter. They included trouble finding inpatient rehabilitation openings, lack of intervention and support at hospitals and issues with insurance coverage.

Gitto said people need to get more educated so that better resources can come to the area.

“If you’re a parent who hasn’t gone through this, you don’t know anything,” she said. “This room should be packed with parents.”

Mike McGaffney, sober-living house manager and member of the Atlantic County-based Stop the Heroin organization, called out the lack and loss of funding for certain programs that help people get into and stay in treatment.

McGaffney said he also wants to see the county pursue more strict liability for drug-induced death charges. The law holds the drug dealer who supplied the heroin or other substance accountable for the death of an addict.

Ocean County Prosecutor Joe Coronato, who was in attendance Monday, said Ocean County has used those charges 35 times in the recent past.

Tyner said Atlantic County officials are working to increase use of those charges and work with counterparts in Cape May, Cumberland and Ocean counties to better track and stop drugs moving across county lines.

One common part of addiction is that it does not discriminate, said Alton Robinson, treatment expert at CARES NJ.

“It doesn’t matter your socioeconomic background, how big your house is,” Robinson said. “When it comes to addiction, it doesn’t matter. There are many barriers, but I can tell you, they can all be overcome.”