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Opioid Epidemic: Fighting the Fix

Consequences come with life and those addicted to opioids or recovering from that dependence live with those rippling effects every day.

Pictures on Elliott Jenkins's fridge are worth more than a thousand words.

"I just wanted it to be full of things that made me happy and people that I love," she said.

It's something she wanted once she got her own place.

"Life right now is really good," said Jenkins.

There is one picture that's a reminder of how Jenkins got to good. It's her intake picture to a treatment facility.

"That was April 9, 2014. I was supposed to meet somebody for more drugs. I didn't have much gas so I was going to stop in the back of this parking lot that belonged to the treatment center," said Jenkins.

This year marks four years Jenkins has been sober.

"My dad's always really emotional about it and he's like 'I'm really proud but I just think about, it was so bad,'" said Jenkins.

It all started when Jenkins was in college, at the time she was diagnosed with Lupus and prescribed medication to treat the illness. That's when she says her addiction to opiates began.

"I always had this idea like I was not what I thought a drug addict was," she said.

Elliott Jenkins

Over the years Jenkins says things in her life went from bad to worse and her addiction cost her so much, including her family.

"I feel like I robbed them of a lot of peace of mind and actual physical things," said Jenkins.

She says it was humbling losing friends, family, money, and her home. Every day since April 9, 2014, she's been rebuilding her life and relationships.

"A lot of it is just showing them because I can say 'I'm sorry' a million times, but I think being the kind of sister, daughter, granddaughter that they deserve is really the biggest piece of it."

The consequences, bad and good, have reshaped Jenkins' idea of what success looks like.

"The main thing I wish I knew was that it didn't matter why I got the way I was, it didn't matter what my family was like, the support I had or didn't have, or how bad it was. It's never too soon to stop," said Jenkins.

Part of healing includes support, Tennessee Overdose Prevention has a number of resources for East Tennessee families dealing with addiction. There are a number of groups on social media, like Facebook, which also hold meetings.

If you're interested in more information and resources, you can visit Tennessee Overdose Prevention's website by clicking here.

Opioid Overdose Deaths on the Rise

The numbers are startling. There were 316 confirmed drug-related deaths last year, just in Knox County. That's a 41 percent increase from 2016.

They're the faces of moms, sons and friends, all lives ended. It's a grim reality as the number of people dying from overdose is not slowing down.

"They are deadly. They are deadlier than they used before," said Dr. Darinka Mileusnic-Polchan, the chief medical examiner for Knox County.

She says what they are finding in autopsies is very alarming. The substances killing people today are more complex, stronger and often laced with other drugs.

"It's a completely different game here because now you have heroine, sold as heroin which is really fentanyl much more deadlier," said Mileusnic-Polchan.

Fentanyl, cocaine and meth are the drugs found most often. The forensics team sees an average of six to seven drug-related deaths each week.

That has actually contributed to our growth which means expense," said Mileusnic-Polchan.

The cost adds up fast. Toxicology tests can run upwards of $500 per case, sometimes more, totaling about $300,00 a year.

That cost in the end will be transferred to our taxpayers so it's a problem," said Mileusnic-Polchan.

She fears the problem will get worse.

"We are now losing huge number of very young kids to these potent drugs," she said.

As the peak number of deaths has now shifted to those in their 20s and 30s, Mileusnic-Polchan says her team will continue to track the results, hoping to provide answers to keep more people alive.

Another concern is maintaining accreditation. By law, the forensic center is required to be accredited through the National Association of Medical Examiners. That is based on having enough staff to keep up with the workload.

The chief medical examiner says they will likely need to add another pathologist in the near future, but do not have enough money in the budget at this time.

Video Feature: The Opioid Epidemic's Impact in East Tennessee

Changes for Doctors and Patients in New Opioid Bill

Governor Bill Haslam put the opioid crisis at the center of his agenda, announcing at the start of the year and touting it as one of the successes of the legislative session which wrapped up Wednesday night.

The anti-opioid effort has been dubbed TN Together, going for one of the most aggressive opioid policies in the nation.

So far in Knox County this month there have been 19 suspected overdose deaths, 97 so far this year according to the Knox County District Attorney's Office which is not only keeping count, but posting the numbers online.

Lawmakers say Haslam's bill is important because it had two goals: to reduce the amount of opiates given after short-term procedures and to reduce the number of unused pills left in medicine cabinets so that they don't get into the wrong hands.

How many, how strong, and for how long are the three elements new legislation is tackling with the opioid epidemic.

"For instance if it's just three days, there's really no restrictions, you don't have to put anything on there. But if you go beyond three days you have to add a code that would tell the pharmacist what the diagnosis is and then if you wrote for too many pills or the strengths were too strong for a certain period of time the pharmacist would not fill it," said State Sen. Richard Briggs.

Briggs says lawmakers excluded very specific groups from this bill, for example those with terminal illnesses needing long-term care.

"If you are one of the chronic pain patients that are on opiates, it really does not apply to you and you don't have to worry about getting the medication that you need," said Briggs.

"I think it's a good first step in striking a compromise between the prescribers and their patients in terms of taking care of their problems, their pain, without that risk of becoming addicted to the drug," said WATE 6 On Your Side health care analyst Craig Griffith.

Codes are now required on prescriptions, so that pharmacists can check the Controlled Medication Database and see if a patient is getting opiates elsewhere.

"It'll be a little more burdensome on physicians, there's no question about this, but it's a step that has to be done," added Griffith.

"It's going to take a while for everyone to get used to doing it because it's something that's different, but in the end I think we'll have less opiates out there floating around," said Briggs.

Included in Haslam's opioid bill is putting millions of dollars into recovery and treatment.

"But because so many people don't have insurance it's going to be a tough problem to fix," added Briggs.

"We have to do more on that to make sure that these people stop opioids but over the long-term stay off them as well," said Griffith.

The governor's office says those bills are on the way to his desk and he will sign them since they were part of his legislative agenda.

Dr. Matthew Mancini, an associate professor of surgery at UT and president-elect of the Tennessee Medical Association says at first he was worried about some loose definitions originally included.

"It's gotten a lot better. I'm pleased that the governor and some of our legislators and lobbyists have worked with the TMA to help make this a little bit more workable plan," he said.

Another portion of the TN Together effort works to help prisoners receive more drug treatment while in prison, reducing their sentences by 60 days if they complete intensive treatment programs.

It also updates the list of controlled substances, adding synthetic versions of the powerful painkiller fentanyl.

Opioids Putting More Kids in Foster Care System

It's an unsettling trend changing the lives of some of the most vulnerable.

"You just see homes disintegrate in a bat of an eye. It's gone," said Michelle McJunkin.

McJunkin sees it firsthand. She's been a foster parent for 13 years and just adopted two kids, Marcus and Maliya, in September.

"They came from households that (had) drugs, alcohol, prostitution," she said.

They are not alone. McJunkin says out of the 125 kids she's fostered, three-fourths came from a home where drugs were abused.

"The kids can usually tell you how to do and cook and make. They can tell you step by step," said McJunkin.

According to Tennessee's Department of Children's Services, there were 6,863 kids in foster care in 2016. That number jumped to 7,158 in 2017. As of this week, 7,808 kids are in foster care. That means there are nearly 1,000 more kids in foster care in just two years.

Marcus and Maliya

The department says the drug epidemic is one of the reasons for that.

"Many people have told me in the Knoxville area that oftentimes entire families might be struggling with opioid addictions. so grandma might be struggling with an addiction or an uncle or an aunt. It makes it tougher for us to find relatives," said Rob Johnson with DCS.

There were more than 550 kids in foster care in Knox County last year. Parent substance abuse was behind over 40 percent of those cases.

The problem is also prominent in Campbell County. Judge Amanda Sammons presides over juvenile court and says she sees at least three of these cases every week.

"When drug deals are going around a child that's a very volatile environment. Violence occurs. Children can get shot, killed," said Sammons.

She's finding many adults in her community are helping in a big way, before the child is put in the foster care system.

"They file private petitions in our court to get private custody and a lot of times those are granted," said Sammons.

McJunkin is one of 70 foster parents through the Helen Ross McNabb Center, but she says there's a growing need for more as thousands of kids like her new additions to the family face this deadly epidemic.

"You don't have to be perfect to be a foster parent. You don't. You just have to open your home and just love them," she said.

The Tennessee Department of Children's Services is taking proactive steps to help these kids by funding a new program called "Safe Babies Court." Knox County is one of a select number of counties participating.

It's based on a national model and helps families get beyond the crisis that might have brought their child into foster care.

Task Force Works to End the Opioid Crisis in East Tennessee

"It was whatever pain pill I could get my hands on at that time."

For 27 years, Angie Gilliam from Rocky Top was addicted to opioid painkillers. It started during her teenage years in the mid-1980s, when she was bullied, raped and had several major surgeries. The pain pills prescribed after her surgeries helped her sleep and numbed her emotional wounds. Before long, she would do anything to get them.

"I would go to the streets, hustling on the streets, um, you know, selling your body, stealing stuff," Gilliam said.

Gilliam overdosed in January 2014. Emergency responders administered Narcan and saved her life.

Not all opioid abusers are so fortunate. Getting tough on those who push drugs on our streets, very often opioids, that result in death is the purpose of the overdose task force, which was formed just over a year ago.

"We're trying to prosecute and build criminal cases... to hold accountability and to prosecute that individual act that caused that person's death," says Knoxville Police Sgt. Josh Shaffer, the task force's lead investigator. "In addition, we want to prevent future ones."

The Knoxville Police Department leads the multi-agency, grant-funded task force, which investigates all potentially drug-related deaths in Knoxville. It's looked into more than 200 so far. After more than a year in existence now, KPD says the task force is having an impact that goes beyond just numbers.

"What I think the impact is... is the message that's being sent to those who are providing drugs to those who are dying," says Police Chief David Rausch. "And that message is clear: we are going to come after you."

They have. The task force's work has led to about a dozen suspects in local drug deaths facing second degree murder or reckless homicide charges and roughly another two dozen facing lesser, but still serious, distribution of controlled substance charges.

Rausch says, "We're going to come after you and we're going to use everything we can find to get you."

It's a welcome message to people like Angie Gilliam, who've experienced the high cost of addiction. Her pain pills briefly cost Angie her relationship with her daughter.

"She said I cannot... I refuse to watch you kill yourself anymore. And she said I cannot save you but God can," says Gilliam. "So I'm going to step back so that he can begin a work in you."

Gilliam eventually got the message, kicking the habit after her overdose at age 42, and has now been clean for more than four years. Today she enjoys warm relationships with her daughter Megan and son-in-law Justin, and she's a doting grandmother to 7-month-old Renlee.

"I chose to use and praise God I chose to quit. You have to make that choice. Nobody can make it for you," says Gilliam.

Chief Rausch's hope is that the muscle of the overdose task force keeps drug pushers, like those who once ruined Gilliam, out of East Tennessee in the first place.

"They leave this community," says Rausch. "They realize that - hey, you can't play this game in Knoxville."

KPD also says the task force has helped shut down two drug-running operations out of Atlanta and two more from Detroit. It's made so much progress, other communities like Nashville and Chattanooga are now looking at the task force here as a model for their own drug-fighting operations.

Finally, something has grown out of the local task force's work that no one ever saw coming when it started: a monthly support group for families who've lost loved ones to drugs. If you're interested in getting support through that, call Tracee Smith at 865-215-3875.

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