Local drug steering panel shows progress

By Joseph Slacian

Wabash, like most communities in the country, has a drug problem. In the mind of the general public, little is being done to combat the problem.

It’s talk like that that draws the ire of members of the Wabash County Drug Steering Committee. The group -- with upwards of 20 members from law enforcement, schools, healthcare, churches and even some recovering addicts – has been working for a few years trying to come up with solutions to the problem.

Four committee members – Parkview Wabash Hospital President Marilyn Custer-Mitchell, Mayor Scott Long, MSD of Wabash County Superintendent Mike Keaffaber and Chief Probation Officer Sarah Lochner – discussed their efforts with The Paper of Wabash County.

Custer-Mitchell and Lochner will join Long at his next town hall meeting sponsored by Long. That will take place at 6 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 15, at the Wabash County Historical Museum.

“We really have a pretty good group going,” Custer-Mitchell said of the committee. “We’ve been organized a few years and are starting to do some things.”

One of the biggest things it did, she admitted, was getting organized.

“We tried to do it on our own; we were fumbling around,” she said. “We ended up hiring a facilitator to come in and help us out.”

The group is now organized into three subcommittees – one looking at prevention, one at treatment and the third at transition.

The steering committee, Custer-Mitchell said, “accomplished some things last year. We’re working this year on some new things. We keep hearing ‘nothing’s been done in Wabash about the drug problem.’ Well, there’s a lot being done.”


Keaffaber heads up the prevention subcommittee, which has about 10 people on it all together.

“Jokingly, we always say if we can get this prevention down, then the other committees of treatment and transition we wouldn’t need to have” Keaffaber said. “We know that’s jokingly.”

Committee members, he said, believe it is extremely important to reach the students with the importance of making the right decisions when it comes to drugs.

The Youth Service Bureau of Huntington County has developed a program for kindergarten age children. The committee is now working on preparing programs for the other grade levels.

“One thing we have addressed is what can we do on a continual basis to reach our students with people who will come in and help us,” Keaffaber said.

Last year, Nathan Harmon spoke to students at Southwood, Northfield and Wabash High schools, then also spoke at a public gathering at the Honeywell Center’s Ford Theater.

The committee is looking for ways to have a similar speaker address students throughout the county. The message would be age appropriate per grade level, similar to the presentations Terry Hall makes about sexual abuse.

“On an annual basis we want everyone in Wabash County, all students, to be able to hear the same message.

Another thing that the subcommittee is exploring is the creation of a Victim Impact Panel. The panel has meetings in which victims describe experiences they or loved ones have endured.

Keaffaber said he and several committee members observed one in Huntington County.

“I thought it was very impactful and very eye opening,” he said. “We’d like to involve the courts, which we have a little bit with the judges, to say, is this something we can do not just with the schools, not just for kids to see what the victims impact panel can do, but also is that something that our courts would actually like to have people assigned to?” he said. “I thought, when I viewed that and observed that, it was really an unbelievable impact because of the situations that were going on and the losses of people. Not necessarily the losses of people because of alcohol, not just drugs, but distractions period.

“It’s not just about drugs and alcohol, but it’s also about distractions. We know about texting and driving and those different things. But most of them were just about alcohol and drugs.”

The committee, he said, would like to see movement on both projects by October.

Drug education must start at an early age, Keaffaber said.

“Seventh and eighth grade is way too late now,” he said. “We have to start a lot younger. … We already have programs curriculum-wise, but if we can do this on a larger basis with everyone hearing the same message, I think that also helps with fidelity because we are all hearing the same message.”


“The treatment committee decided early on with treatment to try to kind of target the fact that we struggle to provide treatment with people close to when these issues are happening,” Lochner said.

To combat that, the committee spent much of 2018 working on developing a Medication Assisted Treatment program to inmates at the Wabash County Jail. The program was implemented earlier this year at the jail.

Through the program, inmates who meet established criteria can enter the program designed to help stabilize their desire for the substance use and provide them a better chance for success in treatment when released.

The committee received a $60,000 grant from the Indiana Supreme Court to begin the program.

Through the grant, Lochner explained, “we can partner with a medical provider that we can contract with to have a nurse on site seven days a week so folks could get their medication if they’re in the work release center.

“We also partnered with Alkermese who provides vivitrol, which is an opioid blockade medication, like a long-lasting injectable,” she said. “We’re able to access people for what we built around in this MAT program. There’s some supervision for these folks if they received the injection in jail to transition out and make sure they’re getting the aftercare treatment that they need.”

So far, the program has had eight participants.

“Now we’re working on making sure public defenders and people like that know that they can make referrals,” she said.

“That can intercept people at like pretrial phase, sentencing phase, so there’s different ways people can be identified for that program.”

The next step was to take members of the treatment group and other members of the steering committee to training put on for a sequential intercept model. In the training, members were able to identify in the community where the committee has a chance to engage people in treatment for substance abuse or mental health and target goals in those areas.

“One of the goals we identified is establishing recovery coaches,” Lochner said, “so that people who are in recovery and who have gone through some training as a recovery coach can be credentialed to do that job.

“That’s one of the things we want to do, is we want to connect those recovery coaches with people in the pre-trial phase, we want to connect it with the problem solving court individuals and we want to connect it to people for aftercare when they’re done with services so they still have support and still have help to kind of navigate the pressures and things that happen for folks. It doesn’t just go away, so how do they navigate that and having that support in place.”

Members of the subcommittee are currently working on a grant that, if received, will add recovery coaches to the program.


In October 2018, the subcommittee, in conjunction with several area organizations, had a seminar at which employers from around Wabash County were invited to learn how to become, and the benefits of becoming, a second chance employer.

“For years nobody would hire a convicted felon,” Long said. “Our population is overwhelmed with convicted felons. Did you commit a violent crime? Is that why you got a felony? Or do you have a drug charge? Is that why you’re a felon?

“They made a mistake in their life and they’re getting excluded from job opportunities, which just knocks them down because they’re trying to get their life back together.”

Some businesses have become second chance employers, the mayor noted.

“Hopefully the people they are hiring are showing up and not backsliding, because that just is a downer for the employer to try to do it again,” he said.

In addition, Long and Custer-Mitchell visited a program in Vincennes called Life After Meth (LAM).

“They’re dealing with all addictions now,” he said. “They have houses where they house people.”

As part of the program, 20 clients are working alongside Knox County ARC clients in one of the ARC programs.

“The one good thing that I can see, is if someone in recovery is having a bad day, they’ve got a support system,” Long said.

“If something happens, and they’re triggered, ‘I feel like using,’ there’s 19 other people who can talk them off the ledge, so to speak, and keep them on the right path.

“It seems to be a really successful program.”

The transition houses are modestly furnished. Long noted, “they don’t make their houses too nice. They don’t want people get too comfortable.”

Those in the program can stay in the house for up to two years. 

“And they work with them to get them back on their feet,” Long said.

New Beginnings, a church of the south side of Wabash, offers housing for men, he and Custer-Mitchell note, but there is no such program for women available here.

“Our goal is to get something going for women,” she said. “Whether we get it this year or next, our goal is to get a house for women.”

The committee also is trying to work with other local groups – such as New Beginnings, the Dream Center, Advantage Housing and the Community Foundation of Wabash County – to see if they can try to develop such a home that fits the needs of Wabash County.

“LAM said you need to get the churches involved,” Custer-Mitchell said. “We have a few people involved. Talking with churches, with (the Wabash Area Ministerial Association), almost every church is trying to do something to help with this. But there’s no coordination with this.

“Even with us, I didn’t even know some of these people were doing things. Everywhere I go, someone is doing something and I’m writing it down to try to coordinate things.”

Community Foundation, she said, is considering a meeting at which the various organizations get together to discuss what they offer to better coordinate efforts.

“I think there’s a lot of support,” Custer-Mitchell said. “We just have to figure out next steps, and all the committees are working on things.”


Posted on 2019 Aug 13