Oped: York County Coroner responds to Heroin Task Force criticism
“Varying ‘task forces’ hold competing town-hall style meetings without coordinating as a group.”
Please don’t be fooled or misled by the above false statement made in a recent letter to the editors of our local newspapers. To clarify, as one of the co-founders of the Heroin Task Force, let me give a rather detailed history lesson to the accusers and anyone who believes them.
The York County Heroin Task Force was formed in the summer of 2014. As heroin deaths were increasing in the county, and legislative hearings on the issue were being conducted throughout the state, a small group of individuals from the DA’s office, local law enforcement and the Coroner’s office, traveled to Delaware County to view one of their “heroin task force” meetings so that the concept could possibly be replicated back in York County as a community means of trying to combat the heroin/opioid epidemic.
One of the key things we learned at the time was that it would take a lot of people and organizations working together to impact our community, and that it would take some time. One of the key takeaways that day was that we learned how to begin to get some basic harm reduction started by implementing a prescription drug drop box program, with the goal of getting those boxes into every single police department in the county, if possible, so that people from throughout the county would have a place to discard their old/unused prescriptions, helping to get those opioids out of circulation. Delaware County had some success with this, and we believed that was something we could do fairly quickly. And we knew that eventually we would try to get naloxone into the hands of law enforcement as another tool in this battle.
We also learned that Delaware County’s Heroin Task Force had been hosting community education throughout their county for about a year, and that their residents and school students were becoming more enlightened about the heroin/opioid epidemic and where to get help. Up to that point, there was no such program geared specifically to the heroin and opioid epidemic in York County, with the exception of one the Coroner’s office had developed in May 2014 and had been presenting to small requesting groups in the county since that time. As the heroin deaths continued to increase, the Coroner’s office continued to receive requests to provide that education.
We were hearing back from local entities that wanted to get involved in helping combat the epidemic, and within a few weeks of attending that meeting in Delaware County, the York County Heroin Task Force was formed in the summer of 2014, a group of community volunteers made up of local law enforcement (city and county), legislators, elected officials, parents who had lost children to heroin addiction or parents with children in active recovery, health-care professionals, addiction specialists, treatment professionals, and many more entities etc., with its goals to raise awareness and educate on prevention, to work with legislators to improve the laws specific to the heroin/opioid epidemic, to support law enforcement in their efforts to save lives, to improve access to treatment and to continue working with the medical community in efforts to reduce the number of opioids prescribed and educate providers regarding the dangers of overprescribing.
In late summer 2014, word had spread that the Coroner’s office had an educational presentation and a small country church in Cross Roads Borough invited us to present, along with Chief Deputy Prosecutor Sunday, as one of the co-founders of the newly formed York County Heroin Task Force. There were about 30 people present. Out of that church meeting, another invite came – to present this time in nearby Delta, a community that had been hit hard by the epidemic. Several weeks later we arrived to present in Delta, expecting about the same amount of attendees as Cross Roads. The community center was overflowing by the time we started. We had to set up extra chairs as approximately 200 people came out that evening. Out of that meeting, those concerned citizens formed their own community activist group – the Mason-Dixon Anti-Drug Task Force, which is a functioning, active community group now 2 ½ years later.
One of the key elements of this meeting and the many that came after since that night was that we were learning where all the problems were, people were sharing their concerns and hassles, and we began to go directly to the treatment providers and to York Adams Drug and Alcohol (all who served on our Task Force) to try and resolve the problems. Sometimes during the course of our many town halls and community presentations, various individuals and organizations would reach out to those families during or after the meeting to immediately address their concerns. Support groups were forming for the families and new non-profits and 12-step groups were being formed. It was exciting to see individuals who had been through some of the darkest times in their lives share their stories, and by sharing, they could help so many others by giving them hope. We realize there is much work yet to do, but are so glad we are not where we were three years ago.
We have presented our information either in a town hall format, or as panelists or in a smaller private forum approximately 120 times since those first two public meetings to groups as few as 5-10 and as many as 800 at a time. We have chosen not to solicit for speaking engagements; individuals and groups contact us. One of our concerns was that if we solicited, some would try to politicize our efforts.
In 2015, the Heroin Task Force partnered with Byrnes Health Education Center, which obtained a grant to develop a curriculum specifically geared to middle school and high school students to better assist us in getting into the schools on a more consistent basis presenting the evidence-based, interactive program, “Heroin – The Wake-Up Call.” This program is still being offered today, along with Drugs 101 for the parents, and the Byrnes Health Education Center curriculum coordinator is an active member of our Heroin Task Force.
I think it was sometime in late 2015 or early 2016 that York City Police held their own town-hall style meeting on the heroin/opioid epidemic in council chambers. Some of our Heroin Task Force members were present at that meeting and another one that was held a few weeks ago. We have expressed our support of their presentation, which is different than the Heroin Task Force presentation, but also effective and important. Led by a group of the Drug Task Force detectives, they use what they identify as a hands-on, uncensored approach, and even have one of their own tell his personal and moving story of a family member’s battle with heroin addiction.
These two entities are doing the same good work, but using different approaches/styles, just as the Byrnes Health Education Center is doing, just as York/Adams Drug & Alcohol is doing. No one is “competing”. The only people who perceive that as competition are people who don’t understand the scope of the problem -- they don’t understand how the work at educating our community never really ends. They don’t understand that sometimes, not everyone agrees on the process, and sometimes, it’s just better to go out and do the work to save lives instead of waiting until everyone agrees how to do it. They only want to politicize the good work of many with the goal of continuing a divide that is only perceived and being maintained by a very few.
We HAVE a York City Police detective on our Heroin Task Force. Our office and the DA’s office work with him closely on every heroin-related death case. From the beginning, the YCPD was invited to be a part of our Heroin Task Force, as was the Mayor. There is plenty of educating to do throughout the entire county – so the Heroin Task Force has always believed that whatever entities want to involve themselves with that process, whether members of the Heroin Task Force (now the York Opioid Collaborative) or not, as long as that education is being done and lives are being saved, that is the greater good.
And let me add that members of the Heroin Task Force have presented along with the York City Police Drug Task Force detectives at a Family issues Roundtable in 2016 that was recorded and has been heavily viewed on community television many times. I still have people come up to me on an almost weekly basis and comment to me about that program, and how it impacted them in a positive way. And I would also add that there have been at least a few instances where members of the Heroin Task Force have invited those specific detectives to be involved with our Heroin Task Force. We have reached out. And in one instance, they actually told Chief Deputy Prosecutor Sunday upon his request to work together, that as long as he was involved with the Heroin Task Force, they would never join us in our efforts.
By nature, I have been a mediator most of my life. I don’t like it when people don’t get along for whatever reason. But I’m also realistic. There are always people in your work life you would never socialize with. But to get the job done, sometimes, you have to put those differences aside and work together – for the greater good. But you cannot force people to work with you who refuse to lay old baggage down. So you simply move on with those who DO want to work with you to complete the goal. That is what we have done.
One of Dave Sunday’s and my goals for the Heroin Task Force was that it would continue to do good things in the community to help fight the heroin/opioid epidemic, whether we were around or not, and we specifically wanted it to be more independent of us as co-founders by this Election Year. For various reasons, we have suspected for some time that some would try to politicize the amazing work that so many have done who are members of the Heroin Task Force. Work that has been observed by the Department of Justice so they could replicate it in other counties in PA. So we wrote for grants and obtained private and community funding which has allowed us to have an Executive Director of our new York Opioid Collaborative, Dr. Matt Howie, for at least the next three years. The work WILL go on under his leadership.
The membership of the York Opioid Collaborative would tell you that one of the most amazing things about the collaborative is that for the first time, multiple agencies/organizations/persons are working TOGETHER to help in this battle for the lives of those addicted to opioids and heroin. This is NOT a “house divided” or a “competing” entity as some would have you believe. This is an organization comprised of many different people with different ideas, but who are UNITED with the common goal to save lives and one day eradicate heroin and opioid addiction from our community. We will never give in to those who try to divide, and we will NEVER GIVE UP.
Pam Gay RN D-ABMDI
York County Coroner