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Heroin epidemic having impact in rural Pennsylvania

A 2-year-old boy puts the syringe from a bottle of Infants’ Tylenol up to his arm, pretending to inject heroin the way he has watched his mother do it so many times.

A child runs around, unmonitored, in the front yard while his parents do heroin inside.

These are just several stories family attorney Kerith Strano Taylor has heard in her practice in Jefferson County, located between Clearfield and Clarion counties. She works with families affected by the heroin epidemic in that rural area.

Most of the experience I have with addiction is grandparents coming in to seek custody of their grandchildren. Ten years ago, I might have had two or three a year. I now have about 10 families coming in per month.

Kerith Strano Taylor, family attorney

“Most of the experience I have with addiction is grandparents coming in to seek custody of their grandchildren. Ten years ago, I might have had two or three a year. I now have about 10 families coming in per month,” she said.

“And I’m just one family attorney in Jefferson County, Pa. There’s more than me. If I’m seeing a catastrophic explosion of these cases, what are the other attorneys in the area seeing?”

In rural areas such as parts of central Pennsylvania, the number of people affected by the heroin epidemic is increasing at staggering rates.

Pennsylvania was ninth in the country in drug overdose deaths last year, with heroin the most common drug identified in fatal-overdose victims, according to a Drug Enforcement Administration report in November.

In Centre County and adjacent Blair, Clearfield, Mifflin and Huntingdon counties, the age-adjusted death rate doubled from 2002 to 2014, according to county statistics recently released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The age-adjusted death rate is the rate at which heroin overdoses lead to deaths. The rate is adjusted for a county’s age distribution and the national rate at which each age group dies from heroin overdoses.

From 2002 to 2014, Blair County saw its death rate increase from a range of 10.1-12 to 18.1-20. Clearfield and Mifflin saw increases from a range of 6.1-8 to 14.1-16. Huntingdon’s rose from 2.1-4 to 6.1-8.

The rate in Centre County jumped from 4.1-6 to 8.1-10.

Centre County Coroner Scott Sayers said he recorded 16 overdose deaths from heroin or multiple drugs in 2014. In 2015, the number was 15.

In the first four months of 2016, Sayers could confirm four overdose deaths and three pending overdose deaths. If those three deaths are confirmed as overdoses, the county would already have seen half of last year’s total in just one-third of a year.

Sayers said the drug has affected both genders equally and doesn’t discriminate by age. Last year the ages of those who died from overdoses in Centre County ranged from 23 to 55, he said.

“This is not just a teenage problem. It’s not just a 24- to 38-year-old problem. You have seniors that are struggling with addiction. It’s not a particular race, even though we’re seeing a higher number of addicts that are Caucasian,” Strano Taylor said. “But to contrast it with the crack epidemic in the ’80s — that was focused in the cities. This is not. This is a rural problem.”

But to contrast it with the crack epidemic in the ’80s — that was focused in the cities. This is not. This is a rural problem.

Kerith Strano Taylor, family attorney

In January, President Barack Obama appointed Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to lead efforts to address problems plaguing rural populations. Chief among those problems: heroin and opioid abuse. In March, Obama announced additional initiatives, such as increased access to treatment.

Heroin and opioids are the great equalizer, but access to treatment is severely limited for those who don’t have means.

Kerith Strano Taylor, family attorney

“Heroin and opioids are the great equalizer,” Strano Taylor said, “but access to treatment is severely limited for those who don’t have means.”

She noted the low success rate for heroin-addiction rehabilitation and that it represents a big impediment for people who have difficulty paying for the first trip to a rehab facility.

Even if an addict goes to rehab, the National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates 40 to 60 percent relapse, depending on the case. If relapsed addicts cannot pay to return to rehab, they have few options until they find themselves in trouble with the law or until EMTs respond to their overdose.

“Families with means are able to cycle through multiple times without the criminal justice system getting involved,” Strano Taylor said about rehabilitation. “Those without means don’t.”

And those without means are common in rural areas. The counties looked at for this report — Blair, Clearfield, Mifflin, Huntingdon and Jefferson — have higher unemployment rates and significantly lower median household incomes than Centre County or the state.

Strano Taylor, who is running for Congress as a Democrat against Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Howard Township, said that, in her experience, many people become addicted to heroin after being prescribed OxyContin, an opioid pain medication.

“What happens is people get hooked on Oxy, their prescription runs out, then they start doctor-shopping. Then they start pharmacy shopping,” she said. “Then that window becomes closed to them and it’s a very easy transition into heroin.”

Sayers said that because of the potency of heroin and its easy availability in the area, he does not have much hope that he will see a decrease in overdose deaths anytime soon.

“At this point, I would hope it would get better,” Sayers said. “But right now, I think it’s a spiral effect and it’s going to get worse and worse.”

Erin McCarthy is a Penn State journalism student.

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