DAYTONA | From 2015 to 2016, the rate of opioid-related deaths in Volusia County doubled, making the county rate 75 percent higher than the state average.
That’s when FAITH (Fighting Against Injustice Toward Harmony) — a social justice organization made up of 32 religious congregations in the county — stepped in.
“We had more than 400 members of our congregations attend 40 home meetings where people discussed what problems they were experiencing in the community and shared their stories. A few members discussed personal experiences of family members dying of heroin overdoses,” said Jessica Robillard, one of the group’s organizers.
In March 2017, Janet Otto, a parishioner of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Port Orange, spoke at a FAITH house meeting. She addressed the crowd recounting the joy of her son Frankie’s birth, his early childhood, his knowledge and wit. He received Confirmation at the parish and graduated from Spruce Creek High School in 2007. But his adolescent experimentation with marijuana led to an oxycodone addiction.
“Before long he began shooting heroin because it was readily available and cheaper. His life began to spiral downward,” Otto said. “After he made an effort to put himself in detox rehab and failed, I took the only next steps I could.”
In her case, she used the Marchman Act to petition the court to order them into an evaluation. He was ordered into treatment and attended a detox and a rehab.
There he met another recovering addict, Kaylee, fell in love and had a child, Jillian. But their joy was short-lived.
“The stress of parenthood and the responsibility proved too much for them and they began using heroin again by the time Jillian was 6 weeks old,” Otto recalled.
Frankie found Kaylee blue and unresponsive. She had overdosed, but they had a dose of Narcan, a medication used to block the effects of opioids. He administered Narcan to Kaylee and then called 911. That act saved her life.
Although the two remained sober for some time, Frankie eventually relapsed. In her testimony, Otto shared her worst memory — a call from Kaylee Oct. 13, 2016. She immediately asked if Frankie was OK. Kaylee replied, “No. He’s gone.”
“‘He’s gone’ is all she could mutter,” Otto recalled.
Frankie died two weeks shy of his 27th birthday. First responders did not have Narcan when they got the call. Otto said “life-saving Narcan (should be) in the hands of police, sheriffs and first responders to give these people another shot at life.”
Fatal overdoses involving fentanyl in Volusia County have quadrupled since 2014. FAITH met with community leaders asking for law enforcement entities to start carrying Narcan kits. The kit contains the nasal spray naloxone, or Narcan, which blocks the brain receptors that heroin and other fentanyl-related drugs activate, reversing the overdose. Although ambulances and paramedics have carried the kit for years, in June 2017 the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office and Daytona Beach Police Department were equipped thanks to a $12,000 grant from Stewart-Marchman-ACT Behavioral Healthcare, a drug treatment agency for exceptional and comprehensive services to individuals living with addiction, mental illness or both, and the FAITH team. More than 700 doses have been administered countywide since then, including through emergency rescue services. More than 900 law enforcement agencies across the U.S. have begun carrying Narcan.
Michael Chitwood, Volusia County Sheriff and parishioner at Our Lady of Hope, said having the kits allows the agency to meet its No. 1 “overriding goal” — securing “the sanctity of human life.”
“Seventy percent to 80 percent of our crime calls are somehow related to the opioid crisis. And the county is seeing a lot of crimes committed directly related to a family member with an opioid addiction,” he said, citing crimes such as raided bank accounts and other items stolen to support habits. “This is an epidemic and people are dying. There are times when we are the first ones there. In a situation when seconds or minutes determine life and death, it wouldn’t make sense for us to need to call for rescue … when stopping it is as easy as spraying the nose spray.”
Chitwood said some of his officers have had to administer the spray to themselves simply from exposure to airborne fentanyl when handling evidence. All of his evidence departments and the courthouse are now equipped with kits for this reality. It is his opinion that, “the reason we have Narcan in the hands of law enforcement in Volusia County is because of FAITH. Just through the Sheriff’s Office, we have administered 28 doses since we started.”
Father Chris Hoffmann, pastor of Our Lady of Hope, is an active member of FAITH and co-chair of the organization. He is passionate about the work they do and argues that all Catholics must abide by Catholic social teaching to help the addicted.
“We are called to do justice,” he said. “It is part of the Gospel.”
He is excited about FAITH’s next venture — working with law enforcement to prevent juvenile arrests and incarcerations that have a lasting impact on a youth’s chance of success. The group is working to replace these with civil citations and diversion instead.