Group wants more religious drug treatment options
SPRINGFIELD, Vt. (AP) — Springfield resident Matt Dunn has struggled with addiction for more than half his life and never sought treatment until this year.
Dunn, 35, said his issues with addiction began in high school with drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana and progressed to opiate addiction and drug dealing.
After a drugged-driving crash that almost killed him earlier this year and heroin trafficking charges he picked up one month later during a traffic stop, Dunn said he knew he needed help. He chose the first program that popped up when he searched online for treatment options: Teen Challenge.
The Johnson-based program is a 15-month residential program for men that aims to heal using religious teachings rather than administering medication. It isn’t registered as a certified treatment provider under the state, but the program’s leaders say they can help with the state’s opiate crisis.
Teen Challenge hopes to open a women’s program next year.
“I haven’t felt this peaceful in my entire life,” said Dunn, who has been in the program for six months. He said he watched multiple friends unsuccessfully go through 30-day, 60-day, and 90-day addiction treatment programs.
Dunn is one of more than 30 men living at the facility in Johnson atop a hill along a dirt road. Most of the men are Vermonters, but some come to Vermont through other Teen Challenge programs throughout the U.S.
The men’s residential program was established in 2005, but has flown under the radar as an addiction treatment option. The organization mainly tries to spread its message through choir performances, visiting prisons and engaging with businesses and members of the homeless community.
“We like to think of ourselves as first responders, boots on the ground,” said Executive Director Pastor Richard Welch. “That’s one of the things that kind of sets us apart, that we don’t wait for them to come to us. We go to them.”
Admissions Coordinator Robert Giles said the program helps with all types of addiction by “treating the inner man.” Residents are also taught life skills and can do apprenticeships.
Welch said the program’s retention rate is about 51 percent, and about 60 to 70 percent of those individuals complete the program and stay clean. Another Teen Challenge program called “Restoration” helps former residents get back on track if they relapse.
Next spring, Teen Challenge plans to open a women’s program in central Vermont focused on addiction treatment and addressing sex trafficking. It is also planning to open an outreach and intake office on Cherry Street in Burlington and another in Rutland.
The number of opiate-related deaths in Vermont has continued to rise. The state reported that 106 people died from overdoses in 2016. Narcan, which reverses the effects of an overdose, was used on more than 2,200 people, according to a data brief published by the Health Department.
The state has struggled to provide immediate medication-assisted opiate addiction treatment to all in need. In September, Gov. Phil Scott announced there was no longer a wait for treatment in Chittenden County, but wait lists remain in other parts of the state.
Welch, who is also a former addict, said the Teen Challenge program is an arm of the Assemblies of God Christian denomination. When he entered Teen Challenge in Connecticut in the late 1990s, he had been an addict for more than 20 years and been detoxed 56 times. He also didn’t believe in God, he said.
“I was in a lot of other programs, and I saw a lot of devastation,” Welch said. “When I got to Teen Challenge, I thought, ‘I’ve really hit the nuthouse.’”
Welch said he began to see recovery and families reuniting as he stayed in the program.
“I thought nobody could be this happy without drugs and alcohol,” Welch said. “I said, ‘There’s probably some drugs and alcohol in this place.’ I looked, and I looked, and there was nothing. The only thing that was there was Jesus.”
Dunn said he returned to God after his most recent arrest and after entering Teen Challenge. During his first mass, he said he surrendered himself to God and then, “I could see clearly and I could breathe.”
“From that day, my life hasn’t been the same,” Dunn said. “It’s been hard, it hasn’t been a cakewalk. ... It’s very hard to walk with the Lord because he’s asking you to do stuff that I’ve gone against my whole life.”
Dunn said his biggest challenge has been refraining from reacting to people’s words. Once upon a time, he would fight back, he said.
Cynthia Thomas, the division director of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Programs, said she has never been approached by the organization about becoming a certified provider.
“We haven’t had any work with them at all, and I honestly do not know about their program because they’re not connected to us,” Thomas said.
There are many requirements and standards associated with being a certified provider through the state, Thomas said. Policies and procedures, staff qualifications and the types of evidence-based practices used in the program are part of the standards that must be met.
“It’s pretty lengthy, and there’s a lot of requirements to be a certified provider, so I just don’t know if they’d even meet that,” Thomas said.
However, she added, “What this supports is every person has their own path to get to their recovery. There isn’t one single way for people to do it. ... Everybody has to find their way, and I think that’s what this speaks to.”
Attempts to reach the state’s Director of Drug Policy and Prevention Jolinda LaClair were unsuccessful.
Welch said he hopes launching a women’s center, which will be located at an undisclosed address in central Vermont, will help in the state’s greater fight to address the opiate crisis. The facility will be the first Teen Challenge women’s center in northern New England.
The program asks residents pay $750 per month and subsidizes the rest through donations, but leaders say no one is turned away due to inability to pay.
Statistics from the Vermont Department of Health show that men and women currently seek treatment for opiate abuse in almost equal numbers.
“We don’t claim we’re the only thing, and we don’t claim one size fits all,” Welch said. “But what we do claim is we can be another resource in this war against this opioid epidemic that is absolutely destroying families and killing people.”
Information from: The Burlington Free Press, http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com