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Hope program offering solace for addicts in DeKalb County

Staff-strapped opioid program waiting for more calls

DeKALB – What could have been?

If only Brenda Jergens of Malta had known her son, Kurt Hudson, had done heroin after she let him drive her car to a strip club in Rockford.

If only there had been measures in place to prevent him from dying in her home in September 2013.

“Had I been educated and known what to look for, I would have known.” Jergens said Thursday.

Kurt Hudson died from an overdose Sept. 29, 2013, in his mother’s home in Malta.

What if she knew what to look for?

What if there were a program to get addicts help?

There is help

The scourge that is opioid addiction hasn’t waned in DeKalb County. There are, however, interventions keeping that monster at bay.

About a year ago, State’s Attorney Rick Amato spearheaded the pilot of a program aptly named HOPE (Heroin and Opioid Prevention and Education). Modeled after the Safe Passage program in Lee County that’s put 300 people into treatment, the local version had gotten seven people on the road to recovery by getting them into treatment centers. Users can turn themselves in and not face criminal charges.

Additionally, in October, the county’s probation program landed a $900,000 grant for a diversion program, the DeKalb County Drug Overdose Prevention Program, which will work to help addicts get clean after being charged.

Despite the timing difference between DOPP and HOPE, all parties are closely working together, Amato said. Steve Lekkas, the DeKalb Police commander who runs point for the department, agreed.

“I think, eventually, it will be a great partnership, where referrals can go back and forth,” Lekkas said.

The biggest hurdles to clear to get someone help are logistic: transportation to treatment centers well outside the county – think Hoffman Estates, Bloomington and such – as well as identifying and screening people who need help.

While opting to not name local nonprofits, Lekkas said many have stepped up to help with those struggles.

DeKalb County Coroner Dennis Miller, who sits on the DOPP board, said the county has seen three opioid-related deaths so far in 2019, compared with 12 last year,
19 in 2017, and 25 in 2016 – a major spike after eight in 2015.

The reason that number has decreased again, he said, is the availability of naloxone, a drug typically called by its brand name, Narcan, that can rapidly reverse an opioid overdose.

“The epidemic is still there, but the availability of Narcan is more so there than it was three or four years ago,” Miller said.

The HOPE program, as Lekkas puts it, is only funded by the allocation of officer time – hence the need for more partnerships in order to help addicts get where they need to be.

Work being done

Since the inception of the pilot program, in-roads have been made with residents and social workers seeking help with not only opioid addiction, but also other crippling vices: alcohol and cocaine, to name a couple.

Then there’s the root of many of those addictions: mental illness.

“A lot of addiction problems, 50 to 75 percent of them, there are underlying mental health issues that might be undiagnosed or on different medications that affect what the treatment’s going to be,” Lekkas said. “It’s a jigsaw puzzle when it comes to the screening process.”

He said in one case, a person’s mental health diagnosis disqualified them from getting into a treatment center – hence the need for more partnerships, more screening and more work done before someone is brought through a facility’s doors that can lead them to a new lease on life.

Lekkas said the hours, or days after an overdose are not the time to seek help, ironically, but that anyone can call anytime.

“Our goal is to take advantage of that window where people are willing to admit they want help,” Lekkas said. “That goes by quickly.”

Amato urged that there’s no need to rush the process of turning the HOPE pilot program into a full-fledged program.

“Would we love a grand opening, and drop balloons and banners?” he said. “In our vision, that’s what we’d love to do, but we don’t need a balloon drop to get somebody help.”

The major step will be training officers in agencies throughout the county, so it doesn’t fall on one person – like Lekkas. He’s quick, however, to point out that one call can change, and even save, a life.

“If anybody calls today, we’ll help them,” Lekkas said.

Anyone who needs help with addiction or wants information on HOPE can contact Lekkas at the DeKalb Police Department at 815-748-8400.

“The big picture is to get these people back out there as productive members of society, instead of keeping them in jail,” Lekkas said.

Hudson’s potential recovery, demise

One of the issues addicts run into is relapsing after doing time. For instance, Jergens had picked up her son from Vandalia Correctional Center, after he’d fulfilled three months of probation behind bars.

“He had a new lease on life,” she said. “He said he had no papers. He said he was free.”

The next week, however, Hudson invited a friend and his friend’s girlfriend over for a cookout. His friend had cleaned up, he told his mom. They were expecting a baby.

Hudson convinced Jergens to let him go to a strip club in Rockford that night, where she said he and his friend bought heroin. They drove back to town in her car, and she drove Hudson and his friend to another friend’s place with the understanding that he’d call when he needed a lift home. That call came about midnight. Jergens picked up her son, who passed out in the passenger seat.

She had a hard time waking him up when they got home, but once she did, he and his friend went upstairs to crash, she presumed.

He never woke up.

“Had I known he was really starting … he went to bed, he just went to bed and just never woke back up. If I’d known he was overdosing, I could have done something, called 911, or called the emergency room,” Jergens said. “But I just thought he was tired. I didn’t truly believe he’d used that evening.”

She said after she’d picked him up, he was passed out in the passenger seat. She assumed he was tired, so she woke him up, got him inside and into bed.

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