Brad Byrd In-Depth: Combating opioid crisis at home

President Trump declared a public health emergency on Thursday to combat the opioid epidemic. The order under The Public Health Services Act will direct federal agencies to give more grant money to fight the crisis. 

Officials say the number of deaths related to opioid overdoses is four times the amount it was in 1999. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports more than 170 Americans die every single day from an opioid overdose.

Eyewitness News is partnering with the Vanderburgh County Prosecutor's Office and Evansville Mayor Lloyd Winnecke's Substance Abuse Task Force for a number of special reports called "A Community in Pain" to investigate the scope of the opioid problem here at home.

Brad Byrd sits down with Andrea Grace-Phillips of the Mayor's Substance Abuse Task Force and Vanderburgh County Prosecutor Nick Hermann to discuss how to combat the opioid crisis and what they would like to see come from the president's declaration.

Transcript of interview: 

Brad Byrd: "This comes as we investigate the scope of the opioid problem here at home. Eyewitness News is partnering with the Vanderburgh County Prosecutor's Office and Evansville Mayor Lloyd Winnecke's Substance Abuse Task Force for a number of special reports called "A Community in Pain." Joining me now is Andrea Grace-Phillips, a member of the Mayor's Substance Abuse Task Force and Vanderburgh County Prosecutor Nick Hermann. We're working together in the coming months on this special initiative. Again we call it "A Community in Pain." Andrea, let us show everyone a picture of a young man taken a few years ago. This is your son. His name was Roman. Tell me about him." 

Andrea Grace-Phillips: "He was magnificiant, and he was also really a tortured individual as he struggled with mental illness with his anxiety and depression. And eventually, it led him down the road of addiction as he attempted to self medicate over the years ultimately leading him to use prescription drugs that then led to heroin a few years after that. So, just a long decade of substance use disorder and a life that never really got to launch as every mother hopes for her son." 

Brad Byrd: "And Nick, I know you have to deal with numbers and statistics. You look at trends, but I posted on my Facebook page tonight that Roman really was not a number. He wasn't a stat being used for a trending poll. He was a human being. With that being said, you're kind of in the middle, your office in the process. When this tragedy starts, it goes through the court system in some cases. You have to decide if what charges if any are necessary. Who are we going after, and then tragically in Roman's case ended up in a morgue. Today's declaration by President Trump, what will that really do from the eyes of a prosecutor here in the Tri-State?" 

Nick Hermann: "Well, technically, I think it's going to free up some money and reduce some regulations as for fighting this fight. I think more importantly it brings this more to the forefront. In Vanderburgh County, we've had 57 drug overdoses this year, an all time record. And we're in October, and a lot of times we don't get drug data back for a month or two. So, you talk about not being a stat. Everyone of these people is somebody's child. A lot of them are also parents, spouses, employees. And when someone's life gets cut short, it affects so many people, and it has such a large impact on our community. And this problem affects everyone regardless of race, regardless of income. It truely is an epidemic that has reached everyone in our community." 

Brad Byrd: "And Andrea, for Roman, would you have done anything differently? Because I know you have been advocating for so many years just to get people to be aware that we have a problem here. It seems like from our standpoint in mainstream media and social media, this has suddenly blown up in the last few years. But this has been going on and 10 years with your son. What have you been doing?" 

Andrea Grace-Phillips: "Well, I have been advocacing both locally and nationally for the last few years. I became a certified life coach and national recovery coach as well. This is really the cause that chose me. It's not really what any parent would want for their child, but I wanted to be involved as I could. Roman and I discussed the possibility of writing a book together. I'm finally embarking on that. Something I may have done differently along the way in the last 10 years is really address the mental health issues that he had more aggressively, so he wasn't in a position to be self medicating. I also would have done more to share without shame in order to share the stigma because it is the stigma that is driving this underground, and people aren't aware of what's going on. But with the epidemic, like you said, we've got nearly 170 people that die everyday in this country." 

Brad Byrd: "And Nick, I know you've talked about this many times about the stigman and about the stereotypes that unjustly portray some individuals that are suffering with this addiction. As a prosecutor and with this initiative going forward, what would you like to see be done right here in Vanderburgh County to at least make some type of progress." 

Nick Hermann: "I think to make progress we have to remove the stigma. We have to get family members and friends to recognize the signs and try to step in and do something about this addiction. The issue with addiction is whether a family member or friend, people want to ignore it. They want to pretend it isn't happening. And if they do get confirmation that it is happening, they step away. And all of a sudden you got the person who is using drugs are people dealing drugs or using drugs as well. I think that is the opposite approach of where we need to be." 

Brad Byrd: "You've gone to the Statehouse to testify what needs to be done with the way we are placing individuals who are addicted in the penal system." 

Nick Hermann: "Yes, we address every single avenue that we can. We need to raise funding for recovery services, addiction counselors. We need to give law enforcement more tools. We need to do everything across the board to address this. As the president said today, we're losing seven people per hour in this country. In Vanderburgh County, what that translate to is we're losing an individual every five days. And we're losing more and more as time goes on, not less. At this point, the goal is to stem this and stop this from increasing. Once we get there, we can look at decreasing it. But everyday, we have more and more people addictive. And everyday, we have more people unfortunately losing their lives because of this issue."

Brad Byrd: "And one of those individuals was Roman. Andrea, we want to show a picture you shared with us of Roman's ashes. You and his father seen here in this picture. Where was this taken?"

Andrea Grace-Phillips: "This was in Delano, Minnesota, and was my son's childhood fishing hole, one of the few really happy memories, happier days. We had an opportunity to spread his remains there with family and friends just a few weeks ago." 

Brad Byrd: "And this funeral publication here: 'The words that broke our hearts to lose you. You did not go alone. A part of us went with you the day God called you home.' Is there something positive, that this won't be a life wasted you want to see?" 

Andrea Grace-Phillips: "Absolutely, as a member of the Mayor's Substance Abuse Task Force, we're doing a lot in the community all that we can. We're gathering benchmark data in order to see what is happening with our intervention and our prevention resources. We recently brought in world renowned doctor that did training for 40 individuals within our communities that will be trained on C.R.A.F.T. program which is an excellent program for communities. I offer support groups for loved ones of addicts, and it is my life goal to make sure his death is not in vain." 

Brad Byrd: "Chris, if we could put some of these websites up for you. Our viewers right now, this is who you can contact for more information. This is the Mayor's Substance Abuse Task Force website, Andre Grace-Phillip's website which offers a lot of insight, and of course you can always get in touch with Vanderburgh County Prosecutor Nick Hermann and his office via his Facebook page or also just pick up the phone and call. Nick Hermann, thanks for coming out tonight. This is a continuing discussion we're going to have not just in November but in the months and the years ahead. Andrea, thank you so much for being here tonight. Our condolensces and sympathy to you and your family for you loss, and hopefully Roman's life will make a difference as an example of a problem that is spiraling of this county and right here in our community. Thank you both for joining us tonight."

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(This story was originally published on Oct. 26, 2017)

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