From left, Karen Biernacki, CEO of Family Advocates in LaPorte; foster parent Kelly Zigler; Joseph Bunch, president of the LaPorte County Drug Free Partnership; and state Rep. Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, speak at the "Confronting the Regional Opioid Crisis" conference Thursday at Purdue University Northwest in Westville.

WESTVILLE — Herb Stepherson felt like he was in hell.

His girlfriend had just given birth to his child. He was living in a car, with her and his dad, addicted to heroin, panhandling and stealing for money. Child protective services was coming to take his son.

A few months later, he found himself homeless on the west side of Chicago, a staph infection on his foot from injecting heroin, eating out of a Dunkin' Donuts dumpster.

"That wasn't supposed to be my life," he said.

Later, he was in the Porter County Jail, facing multiple felonies and decades behind bars. He planned to kill himself.

But something started to change. He attended drug treatment in jail. People recovering from addiction came to talk to the inmates.

"Shortly after that, I adopted the idea of, 'Why not me?' " he said. "I'm used to living like a scumbag, so let's try something new."

He stayed clean. He started mentoring other inmates. He eventually became an author and speaker. He got his son back.

Stepherson's story — one of recovery — is one a conference this week hoped to create more of. He was one of the keynote speakers at the "Confronting the Regional Opioid Crisis" event held Thursday at Purdue University Northwest in Westville, hosted by the school's social work program.

Pam Saylor, the social work program director for Purdue Northwest, listed the grim statistics: 115 Americans a day killed by opioids, Indiana having the 17th-highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the nation, drug overdoses taking the lives of 196 people in Lake County, 50 in Porter County and 26 in LaPorte County in 2017.

"We see the effects of the opioid crisis on the families we serve," she said.

Solutions aren't easy

State Rep. Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, said the crisis is particularly "insidious" because people who are addicted often start with a legal prescription. At the same time, he said, you don't want to totally handcuff health care providers because there are people out there with real pain.

He noted that there are not enough licensed clinical social workers and psychiatrists in Indiana.

"We've got to have more resources for detox ... for follow-up care ... that produce the type of people who are qualified to do this work," he said. "Indiana has done and said some of the right things. ... It comes down to dollars and the dollars matter. The problem is so severe we can't afford not to spend them."

Kelly Zigler, of LaPorte, has been a foster parent for more than 50 children. More than half were removed from their parents because of drugs. She and her husband adopted two children who were born dependent on opioids.

"I say they cry but they scream," she said. "They shake, some of them have seizures."

She said there's just not enough treatment out there. She knows from experience, having to try to find it for her son, who was addicted to opioids.

"Have you ever Googled treatment centers?" she said. "Try to afford those."

She and her husband eventually sent him to 16 rehabs — zeroing out her bank account, maxing out credit cards — before he finally got clean. He now works at the faith-based rehabilitation center where he got sober. "I said as long as my son was still breathing, I still had hope," she said.

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Foster care and legal system involved

Karen Biernacki, CEO of Family Advocates in LaPorte, said her program had 128 kids in foster care in 2012. Last year, it had 290, with 85 percent of their parents addicted to opioids. In the last six months, four of those parents died from overdoses.

"We've had kids who've been present when their parents have overdosed and died," she said.

She noted that for many people struggling with addiction, it often takes being jailed to get them clean.

"If having someone take your children away is not the bottom, then what is the bottom?" she said. "The most success we have seen, and I hate to say it because we don't want to incarcerate people, but jail has been their bottom."

LaPorte County has 35 participants in its drug court program, where nonviolent drug offenders do intensive drug treatment in place of jail. If they complete the 18-month program, their charges are dropped or reduced.

"Drug courts work," said Steve Eyrick, chief probation officer for LaPorte County, noting that the program is half as expensive as the county jail and a third the cost of the penitentiary.

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"If you've never been to a drug court graduation, you need to get there and see it," said Ron Heeg, chief deputy for the LaPorte County Sheriff's Department. "It's very moving, it's very powerful and it almost brings you to tears."

The cost of addiction

Mann Spitler, a Valparaiso podiatrist, saw his daughter, Manda, go from a fun-loving girl to a heroin addict in a matter of months. She spent her savings over the course of a few weeks. She got in a car accident, likely after nodding off on heroin. She went to detox in the hospital.

"I had no depth of understanding as to how much danger she was in," she said.

On March 30, 2002, he found her submerged in the bathtub at their home, unconscious, overdosed on heroin. Hours later, at the hospital, she was taken off life support. She was 20 years old.

"My wife and I thought we did a pretty good job of raising Manda," he said. "But there are so many more things we could have done."

He said parents should be "snoops," checking their kids' diaries and journals and listening in on phone calls. He said they should be positive role models ("Be the person you want your child to be.") He said they need to have firm rules and regulations, know who their children's friends are, reduce screen time, postpone social media as long as possible.

As for Stepherson, 32, he's now been clean for three years. He works as an intervention coordinator for Intervention Services Inc. and Sober Solutions in Lowell.

He believes schools need to have mental health and substance abuse specialists on staff. He said families of people who are addicted have to change, learning how to stop enabling and being manipulated. He said the Region needs more halfway houses, so people recovering from addiction have after care and support.

"Let's make change and not just have lip service and seminars and conferences and mostaccioli," he said.

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Health Reporter

Giles is the health reporter for The Times, covering the business of health care as well as consumer and public health. He previously wrote about health for the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World. He is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.