Gowanda’s Chief Police Officer Stephen G. Raiport can’t get the image out of his mind, a lifeless young man curled up on the floor of a basement apartment with a hypodermic needle still in his arm.
Raiport recognized the 32-year-old. He knew the young man’s mother, his brothers – and now on this cold day in March in Gowanda Raiport saw firsthand the consequence of heroin addiction.
The overdose in March 2015 was the first sign the opiate epidemic punishing the nation was in this small rural village located 30 miles south of Buffalo.
It served as a call to action.
“Of course everyone knew him,” said Raiport of the overdose victim. “That’s when we knew we had to do something. You watch these kids grow up. How could you not help and be a part of them turning their lives around? That’s what we do as a community. These are our people.”
So Raiport gathered community leaders for a series of strategy sessions on how to stem the runaway abuse of opiates. They met in church halls, school auditoriums, coffee shops, living rooms and around kitchen tables. They invited residents to share their ideas.
“We just kept meeting for almost a year,” Raiport said. “We rolled out our program this February.”
They developed Community Connections, an addiction intervention program which serves residents in Gowanda and Salamanca struggling with opiate addiction. At the core of the program is Raiport, who is so committed to the cause that he put his cell phone number in the Gowanda Pennysaver and the Dunkirk Observer so those in need could call – 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The idea is to get people who need help into treatment – and not into trouble.
“We don’t ask questions, like where do they get their drugs,” he said. “They want help and we have to give it to them when they’re hot for it. Opiates are killing people quick.”
The program is based on a treatment model launched in 2014 by the Gloucester Police Department in Massachusetts. Called Police Assisted Addiction Recovery Initiative, it has been adopted by law enforcement agencies around the country including more than a dozen in Erie County including the Buffalo Police Department.
But unlike most police officers participating in the national program, Raiport handles each call himself.
For his wife and two children, this translates into abbreviated dinners, missed football games and unexpected middle-of-the night departures.
“I’ve come in at 1 o’clock in the morning, on weekends and holidays,” said the burly Raiport, 44, who commands a force of one other full-time and 18 part-time officers. “Weeks ago, someone showed up at my home, the parent of an addict. Knowing the history of the individual I had no idea what was going to happen. Of course my 17-year-old daughter is home alone. She freaked out, so other law enforcement agencies showed up at the scene."
The community effort is beginning to pay off:
- Since Community Connections was launched nine months ago, 59 opiate addicted men and women started treatment, many opting for out-of-state facilities.
- In the last two years property thefts in Gowanda were cut in half, dropping from 59 to 22, Raiport said.
- From June 2015 through October 2016, Gowanda police made a dent in local drug traffic by teaming up with the Southern Tier Regional Task Force for 35 arrests charging sale and possession of narcotics, said Raiport.
“Just as damaging as the flood”
Before he was a police officer, Raiport was chief of the Gowanda Volunteer Fire Department. Raiport was a bus driver for the Gowanda School District and he coached Pine Valley Youth Football.
It was Raiport who coordinated emergency response efforts in the summer of 2009 when Gowanda was declared a state disaster area because of massive flash flooding. As fire chief he led evacuation efforts at the former Tri-County Hospital and at two group homes that served the disabled.
Many in the village compare the devastation caused by the floods of ’09 to the havoc opiate abuse can create in the community.
“The opiate crisis is just as damaging as the flood,” said Stacey Raiport, Raiport’s wife. Perhaps worse. “You can help your neighbor clean up after a flood, but how do you console someone after an overdose?”
A licensed practical nurse, Stacey works as a teacher’s aide in Pine Valley Schools. Her husband, she said, never stops working.
“We’re walking downtown (Gowanda), and he takes off down an alleyway,” Stacey recalled. “He looks back at me as he’s running. ‘I’ll be right back,' he shouts. As it turned out, he saw someone who had gone into treatment but had relapsed and didn’t want Steve to know. Steve knew. Others will call and tell Steve they’re having a bad day, and he meets them at Tim Hortons.”
A second heroin overdose rocked Gowanda in November 2015, and a third opiate-related death was reported in July of this year, said Raiport. More opiate overdoses were recorded on the Seneca Nation Territory that borders Gowanda where two young women died this October.
People need to recognize the signs and symptoms of drug abuse, said Raiport, who told the story of an 83-year-old woman and her 54-year-old son, who died of an opiate overdose.
“She had no clue what the signs were,” he said. “He overdosed at her house so we Narcan-ed him," referring to the heroin antidote. "Three days later he was found dead in his house in Delavan of an overdose. She saw his dirty spoons but she attributed them to him never picking up.”
Just getting people to treatment can be difficult too. Public transportation is sparse in Gowanda – no buses, one taxi. Cattaraugus Creek bisects the village making it even more difficult for residents with opiate dependency to access treatment. With Tri-County Hospital and its inpatient addiction treatment program shut down after the historic flood, there was a void that needed to be filled.
Community Connections became an umbrella organization for people with opiate dependency. It enlisted the Health Community Alliance, a non-profit health network in Gowanda that served residents for 20 years by linking them to insurance providers. Zoar Valley Clinic and Lakeshore Behavioral Health in North Collins signed on, too. Love INC (in the name of Christ), a faith-based ministry, helps opiate addicts seeking treatment with travel expenses. Seneca Strong, a department of the Seneca Nation, was developed in March of 2014 to fight the opiate and alcohol epidemic. The program's outreach and recovery centers serve the Seneca Nation and are located on the Allegany and Cattaraugus territories.
Raiport also began linking some of the people who came to him for help with a treatment center, Water’s Edge Recovery in Stuart, Fla. which accepts referrals from law enforcement agencies throughout the country.
“There are some people who want to get totally away and start a new life – not around here,” said Raiport. “We just learned as we went along. We made connections."
Kristin Gallucci, chief marketing officer for the the Florida treatment center said she is well aware Raiport’s extensive efforts in getting people living in the Gowanda area into treatment.
“He really takes a personal role, a more hand’s on-approach which brings greater success,” said Gallucci. “He calls us directly with someone who seeking treatment. We work with a lot of police agencies but no one took the time to visit as did Raiport.”
On a trip to Florida in March for a family vacation and see his son play baseball, the Raiports drove across state and toured Water's Edge and met with the staff and counselors.
"My kid has a problem"
Michael Witherell has a peaceful face framed by a baseball cap – his mainstay -- and a large-diameter ear piercing in each lobe. He is 25 now.
His mother Gloria Witherell recalled what he was like in grade school.
“His fourth-grade teacher told me one time Michael was the most compliant student she ever taught in the 30 years, said Mrs. Witherell. “Michael was an excellent student until he hit the ninth grade when he figured out how to coast.”
Drugs didn’t enter Michael’s world until later in high school, when he was 17 or 18. His drug use started with marijuana, intensified with pain killers and plunged into addiction. Mrs. Witherell was a widow raising three children. Her job as account clerk at the Gowanda Correctional Facility kept her busy enough.
“In the early years I was probably in denial,” said the petite woman. “I didn’t really pick up on it until it was bad enough that I sent him to rehab. No mom wants to say: ‘My kid has a problem,’ but I always had his back.”
Michael, meanwhile, never let on he had a problem. He’d blame his ashen appearance to lack of sleep. The distance grew between him and his family. The only friends he had left sold drugs or used them. He tried in-patient treatment twice, out-patient treatment more times than he can remember. Each time he returned to drugs, he thought he knew better. He kept two doses of Narcan in the glove box of his car.
In February Michael decided to give treatment another chance, and he asked his mother for help. From her home in South Dayton, about 10 minutes outside the Village of Gowanda, she spoke the words that would change their lives.
“Go talk to Steve Raiport,”said his mother, who had just read about Community Connections in the newspaper.
Two days later on Feb. 22, Michael was on a plane to Florida and started a detox program in Port St. Lucie, Fla. Within a week, he was admitted into Water’s Edge Recovery in for treatment.
“When I started getting help it was like I relearned how to live,” said Michael. “At first it’s scary. It got easier with time. At Water’s Edge, I wasn’t a number. They actually want to help.”
During their visit to Water's Edge, Raiport and his wife saw Michael sitting outside on a picnic bench, Stacey Raiport said.
“So the first thing he did after leaving the facility was pulled into McDonald’s and called Gloria. ‘You wouldn’t believe I just saw Mike and he looks great,’ Stacey recalled her husband said.
Michael has been sober since May 17. On his 36-hour bus ride back home he and Raiport communicated back and forth on Facebook.
“This is the longest I’ve been sober,” Michael said. “Since I’ve been back I tread lightly on who I hang out with and what I do because I have my best interests at heart. I know who are doing well and I cling to them. One day I hope that group will grow.”
Raiport took Michael’s success in stride.
“I’m always willing to help people go that extra mile,” he said. “When the individual and family come in, you’re seeing them at a desperate time. Knowing that you can help them goes a long way in this community. Like I said, we all know each other.”