An Opioid Crisis Special Report

The Attorney General has called the opioid epidemic the worst drug crisis in American history.

The problem is spreading at an alarming rate.

Every day 115 people die from an opioid overdose in the United States, and the epidemic could claim 1 million lives by 2020.

Action News is exploring the impact this has had in our area, and what is being done to find solutions.

The first step toward overcoming an opioid addiction is seeking help. If you need it, do not hesitate to find it. Just make sure you are finding the right option for you.

More and more treatment centers are opening and each has its ways of caring for the addicted. Many begin with an assessment and then a detox. With opioid addiction, detox usually lasts four to seven days.

From there, treatments can vary from center to center. At Mirmont Treatment Center, one approach incorporates holistic techniques. Patients use acupuncture, yoga, meditation and mindfulness-based stress reduction to give them therapeutic coping skills and relieve discomfort.

How to find the right opioid addiction treatment. Brian Taff reports during the Action News Opioid Crisis Special: Finding Solutions on July 19, 2018.

"All of that is geared at helping somebody be where their feet are and be in their own body. When you are dealing with addiction, a lot of times you want to be anywhere but in your own skin because you are so uncomfortable," said Mirmont Addiction Specialist Jessica Molavi.

After detox, patients begin 24-hour care, meeting one-on-one with therapists and attending group-based sessions. Since each individual has different needs, Mirmont offers specialty programs, including one for relapse syndrome and another for first responders and veterans struggling with addiction.

Mirmont's in-patient program typically lasts 30 days before clients are moved into out-patient care.

Safe injection sites are places for opioid addicts to go use their drugs in a controlled environment.

There is a push to bring such sites to Philadelphia, but not everyone is on board with the idea. So Action News traveled to Toronto, Canada where safe injection sites are already up and running to get a first-hand look.

We found a mixed reaction.

Action News Investigates safe injection sites. Chad Pradelli reports during the Action News special Opioid Crisis: Finding Solutions on July 19, 2018.

Philadelphia city leaders have given the green light to what they call comprehensive engagement user sites. It's another way of saying safe injection sites.

There are still many hurdles before they become reality here in Philly, but they'll be largely modeled after sites in Canada.

There's no question these sites save lives and prevent disease, but their location can create concern from residents. We met Farrah Morrison in one of those sites. She was getting a fix with a clean needle inside a sterile room, all while being monitored in case of an overdose.

"You cannot use alone because you will die," she said. "You will die."

Safe injection site user Farrah discusses her battle with drugs in an interview with Action News reporter Chad Pradelli in Toronto, Canada.

It's been nearly a year since Toronto opened its first federally approved safe injection site.

"We offer all the supplies that they'd need: tourniquet, sterile water, cookers, and then they can select the needle that most meets their needs," said Shaun Hopkins, who runs a site in the heart of Toronto's tourism district. "We intervened, so far, from August 2017, in about 170 overdoses either with Naloxone or oxygen. So you could say we've saved those lives," she said.

In Toronto, roughly 300 people died from an opioid related overdose in 2017. Not one of those deaths happened in one of these facilities. Naloxone, commonly known by the brand name Narcan, is readily available. After a user injects, he or she is urged to go to an observation room.

When asked about public support for the facility, and whether it has increased or decreased, Hopkins said, "I think public support for this facility is difficult."

"You cannot use alone because you will die."

And this is why: Over the two days we sat outside several of Toronto's safe injection facilities, we witnessed prevalent drug use out front, drug deals, and even violence.We watched as one man harassed several people passing by on the sidewalk, even putting one in a chokehold. One guy decided to fight back and security arrived.

Christine Wittick owns the Football Factory, a bar neighboring one of the city's half-dozen operational safe injection sites. She understands the need, but feels the rights of the addicts often come before those in the community.

"We started to have drug dealers and prostitutes across the street. Crime started to escalate, neighbors have had their homes broken into, my husband has been punched in the face by a man who was very, very high in front of customers," Wittick said.

In Moss Park, we met a woman named April. Like many users, she's addicted to both crack and heroin. We found her using just a few hundred feet from a supervised injection site.

"I go and get a lot of supplies and don't stick around," she said. April admits that the site attracted more users and dealers, but said the impact is worth it to save lives.

"If you use alone, you die alone," she said. "You've got to weigh the negative with the positive. Saving a life is a lot more important that the other things that come along with it."

April, a current drug addict, discusses her fight against opioids in an interview with Action News reporter Chad Pradelli in Toronto, Canada.

Bill Coldin lives across the street from the park. He admits there was drug usage there before the facility opened last year, but says it's increased since. We asked: What would your message be to Philadelphians?

"Be careful where you put them," he said. "You are going to need increased policing around them."

He says the site in his neighborhood is not being used for its intended purpose.

"What bothers me is no one is using is the facility. And if they are using it, they are using it to socialize and talk right there," said Coldin.

Toronto City Councilor Giorgio Mammoliti is an outspoken critic of the safe injection sites. He believes the facilities should be placed in hospitals and have a greater emphasis on treatment. But Canadian health officials say you can't push addicts into treatment.

"Be careful where you put them."

If you do, they say, addicts won't use the sites. First, they say, trust needs to be established and it's inside these walls where that will happen.

Here in Philadelphia, city leaders have been selling the public on the idea that so-called comprehensive user engagement sites will be a bridge to rehab.

"Every city is going to address this in a different way. We believe strongly in getting people in treatment is our goal, and pushing that at every step in the process," said Philadelphia Health Commissioner Tom Farley.

Farley said he hopes to open a supervised injection site within the year, but says the biggest obstacles are the legal issues and whether the United States Attorney General's office will take action if one opens.

Research on the effectiveness of supervised injection sites being a path to treatment have been inconclusive. Toronto was unable to provide any statistics regarding its sites. However, the city of Vancouver's original facility, Insite, reports out of 7,300 users in 2017, just six percent accessed its detox treatment facility, and the average stay was just 11 days.

After shooting up her latest hit, Farrah Morrison said she was ready to get off drugs and connect with her three children. She's using this site as the road to that recovery, but where it ends is unclear.

"Wish me luck," she said.

Addiction can happen to anyone and it affects everyone.

In some cases, even unborn babies.

One local mother says finding out she was pregnant was her wake-up call.

How one woman beat opioid addiction while pregnant. Ali Gorman reports during the Action News special Opioid Crisis: Finding Solutions on July 19, 2018.

Brittany Armentani of Trevose, Pa. always wanted to become a mom, but when she found out she was three months pregnant, she realized she had a problem with pills.

"I didnt know I was addicted because I'd come off them and not get sick, but I couldn't stop," Brittany said. "I craved them."

Doctor Kristi Dively says addiction during pregnancy is more common than people think. At Retreat at Lancaster County, they have a special program to help women like Brittany.

"I didn't know I was addicted."

She says stopping drugs cold turkey could harm the unborn baby, so the recommendation is for medication-assisted treatment.

Brittany was put on Buprenorphine, which helps stop cravings.

"Some people have the opinion if you're on Buprenorphine they're still using, but I'm of the opinion if that medication keeps someone sober, healthy, working, functioning, how is that medication any different than a medication you take for blood pressure every day?" said Dr. Dively.

Dr. Dively says research shows better outcomes for moms and babies using this medication. The baby may still be born addicted, but the withdrawal is much less than it would be with other substances.

Brittany Armentani tells us how a pregnancy she thought might never happen helped her start on the road to recovery.

Brittany's baby, Skylar, was born early but with no withdrawal symptoms. She is now five months old.

"She's healthy, she's here. I don't know what would've happened if I didn't go on that medicine," she said.

Brittany says she still has her tough days, but she's been sober for nine months.

A heartbreaking consequence of the opioid crisis is babies and children being placed in our already overtaxed foster care system.

A nonprofit called Kids Peace tells us that 95 percent of children are referred to them because their parents are addicted.

Compare that to just 10 percent a couple years ago.

These kids need more people to open up their homes and step in as loving caregivers.

Foster families open homes to kids affected by opioid crisis. Nydia Han reports during the Action News special Opioid Crisis: Finding Solutions on July 19, 2018.

Jamie Finn cares for a four-month-old like one of her own, even though he will be in her life only a short time.

He is Jamie's 18th foster child, and is an addition to the already large Finn family. The Finns have two biological and two adopted forever children, but they also take in two foster children who stay anywhere from a few days to an entire year.

"It's very hard to be prepared, and you're certainly never prepared emotionally," she said.

Most of the Finn's foster children have parents addicted to opioids, and many kids come to them suffering from withdrawal.

Jamie Finn, who has been a foster parent to 10 children, talks about the most challenging child she's cared for, and the bond that experience created.

"Sort of translucent skin, the shakes, inconsolable, digestive issues, trouble sleeping, screaming. I've had babies who scream and scream and will sleep on me when I'm sleeping on a chair because they are in pain and they're suffering," she said.

Kevin and Greg Wesley-Lynch also know how heartbreaking is to watch a baby in distress. Looking now at their adopted son, Austin, you'd never know he was born two months premature, in jail, to opioid-addicted parents.

"I've had babies who scream and scream... because they are in pain."

"He was born with a heart condition, he had a nasogastric tube that goes up the nose and into the belly because he wasn't eating on his own," said Greg.


"As soon as we saw him we were in love with him," Kevin said.

Kevin and Greg opened up their home and their hearts as Austin's foster parents.

"We went and visited him every day until he was able to come home with us when he was released," said Kevin.

Gregory and Kevin Wesley-Lynch talk about meeting Austin, who started as a foster child but would soon become a permanent member of the family.

Rebecca Cade trains prospective or new foster parents for a nonprofit called KidsPeace.

"It is you saying 'I want to be the one, I want to be that agent of change. I want to be that friend or parent of excellence that helps these kiddos,'" Cade said.

She's lost count of how many children she's fostered.

"It is you saying 'I want to be the one, I want to be that agent of change.'"

"Just as a typical mom you need that support. For someone working with impacted babies, you need two or three extra support levels," she said. "And if someone can come for an hour or two so you can do personal care, it'll help both of you in the long run."

Cade also says you should talk to teachers, friends, and especially doctors to make sure they are aware and sensitive to the child's special needs.

"As soon as they hear a baby was born impacted, they'll handle certain medical issues differently," she said.

As for Austin: He's now two years old and is the picture of strength and resilience.

"He's a fighter, he's up to his age appropriate motor skills and speech and everything," said Kevin.

And Austin is an official member of the Wesley-Lynch family. Greg and Kevin adopted their little boy earlier this year. But Austin's biological family is still very much a part of his life.

"As soon as we saw him we were in love with him."

"His maternal grandmother was in our room and one of the first things she said is, 'Can we still be his grandparents?'" said Greg.

As for Jamie Finn, she said she does everything she can as a foster parent to communicate with and help the biological parents, realizing that the goal of fostering is to return the children to those parents.

"I've done a 180 in way I think about my childrens' biological parents. The things I know many of these women go through, I can't imagine," she said. "I want them to know I'm on their side and will continue to be on their side, I'll help you with this transition of your child being placed in your arms again."

But Jamie warns: the goodbye is always heart-wrenching.

"I have to celebrate the fact I'm part of a family coming back together," she said. "I've shed many tears, I've worried I've wondered and prayed. It's very difficult."

DIGITAL EXTRA: Heather Moore, the program manager for KidsPeace Southeast Region, talks about her personal experiences as a foster parent for children impacted by opioids.

Difficult but worth it. Greg and Kevin plan to foster another opioid-impacted child with the hope of eventually giving Austin a forever sibling.

"Definitely at least one more."

Jamie now runs her own nonprofit called Foster the Family. Volunteers prepare and deliver packages with all kinds of things families might need.

They also provide a mentor's phone number, a meal, and most importantly, a sense of community and support.

For more information on becoming a foster parent, see the links at the bottom of this page.

Foster homes aren't the only solution for children of opioid-addicted parents. Many times, that responsibility falls on a grandparent.

These are people who've raised children once, and are now being called on to do it again.

But the circumstances can challenge those grandparents like they've never been before...

Opioids forcing kids into homes of grandparents. Nydia Han reports for the Action News special Opioid Crisis: Finding Solutions on July 19, 2018.

Keeping up with an 8-year-old and 10-year-old isn't easy for most adults, and that's especially true for a grandparent.

"I don't think they understand when I say 'gram's tired,'" said Judy Baughn of West Philadelphia, who is raising granddaughters Nevae and Carly on her own.

She said she never thought in her wildest dreams she would be raising children again.

"Nothing like this has ever happened to anyone in my family," she said. "I didn't expect this at all."

Judy says the girls' parents became addicted to opioids.

"Sometimes I would cry, I'll tell you the truth."

"Sometimes I would cry, I'll tell you the truth. I felt so bad for them and I didn't know what to do," Judy said.

"You don't ever want to take kids from their parents," said Judy. "I just kept praying that it would work out, but it didn't."

Judy says the state of New Jersey took Nevae and Carly away from their parents for neglect, but when she first petitioned to adopt them, she was denied.

"So I decided I was going to resign from my job and devote my time in getting my grandchildren," she said.

Judy Baughn talks about her fight to adopt her own grandchildren during an interview with Action News reporter Nydia Han.

Judy also gave up her plans to retire in the country and instead moved to Philadelphia.

"And in the process of it all, from being so devastated, I had a heart attack," she said.

She left the hospital two days later to continue the adoption process and eventually her request was approved. That was three years ago.

"My oldest granddaughter, she's special needs and I never had a special needs child," Judy said. "At first I felt really overwhelmed because I didn't know where to go, what to do, and I'm still feeling my way."

Approximately 2.6 million children are currently being raised in grandfamilies. 100,000 children in Pennsylvania are being raised by grandparents or other relatives, and experts say this number is rising as the opioid epidemic devastates communities.

So the federal government has created a task force to support grandparents like Judy.

"It's a different kind of love as a grandparent."

"So that they can have the info they need to do the best job possible to raise grandchildren without a lot of preparation," said Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pennsylvania).

"It's supposed to give us more resources and place everything in one place so it'll be easy for us to connect with and get help," Judy said.

And Judy says despite the challenges, she's happy her grandchildren are with her.

"It's a different kind of a love as a grandparent," she said. "It has its rewards."

Many people in the depths of addiction don't think it's possible to get clean, but there are thousands of success stories.

Bryan Kennedy is one of them.

He struggled with drug and alcohol addiction for years.

But now he's now eight years sober and helping other men follow in his footsteps.

Former opioid addict using experience to help others. Ali Gorman reports during the Action News special Opioid Crisis: Finding Solutions on July 19, 2018.

Bryan Kennedy has just opened his sixth sober living home. Independence Lodge helps men get back on their feet and stay off drugs after leaving rehab.

"They start in a room with a couple of guys, constant accountability, constant interaction with other guys," he said.

It's a part of a recovery process that Bryan knows is vital.

"I didn't think I would make it this far. I thought I would probably die at some point from my disease," he said.

"That drug is the devil itself."

Bryan's addiction started with social drinking, then experimenting with painkillers. It escalated to heroin.

"Out of every drug I have ever done in my life, that drug is the devil itself," he said.

He spent years hooked, went to rehab twice before, but on his third attempt he checked into Mirmont Treatment Center, then a sober living home. The center kept him on the path of sobriety.

Bryan's now been drug and alcohol-free for more than eight years.

Bryan Kennedy, founder of Independence Lodge, talks about the rough start he had on the road to recovery, and how he finally managed to turn his life around.

"But the way that I was, and it was pretty rough at the end, it's more or less if I can do this, anybody can do this," he said.

It's a message Bryan shares everyday to other men staying in the sober living homes he now runs.

"If I can do this, anybody can do this."

"It is an exchange for me. I feel like I have to give back in order to continue to receive the gifts I receive on a daily basis," he said.

Bryan says his life now is better than he ever imagined. He has a loving family and a 13-month son, Jack.

"There is nothing like when I walk into his room and he looks up from his crib and stands up and smiles ear to ear and extends his arms towards me," he said.

Bryan says he'll tell Jack about his struggles with addiction when he's older.

For now, he's enjoying every moment with his son and inspiring others to stay in recovery.


Cost of Treatment

Looking for treatment? Here are tips for finding and paying for help.

Becoming a Foster Parent

Here are the local state websites with information on becoming a foster parent: