MANITOWOC – Unless you've invited him for dinner, you don't want Manitowoc County Coroner Curtis Green showing up at your front door.
All too often he has to break the bad news that a loved one has died from a drug overdose or accident involving drugs.
"I ask you to come together to keep me out of people's living rooms," he said, addressing more than 300 people who showed up — and stayed — for the three-hour-plus "It Doesn't Start with Heroin" program recently at Silver Lake College.
The Healthiest Manitowoc County Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition sponsored the free public program focusing on the area's growing opioid/heroin epidemic and its consequences.
"Addiction is not a character flaw, not a sign of a weak personality, not a crime and not a moral failing," said Tracy Geenen, executive director of the United Way Manitowoc County and emcee of the program. "It's a disease."
Woman lost daughter to drugs
Marie Schultz, of Two Rivers, shared the painful story of how she lost her 33-year-old daughter, Michele, to drugs earlier this year.
"How many more have to die before help will become available?" she asked. "I ask Manitowoc to open your eyes to all the young deaths. I hope you don't have to endure the pain. No parent should have to go to their child's funeral. We have no treatment center in Manitowoc except Marco, which is small. Please don't turn you back on this growing problem."
In the last six years, the county has had more than 90 drug-related deaths including accidents, Green said.
"Imagine if there were 90 deaths at an intersection in six years. We'd be spending millions of dollars to build a roundabout," said Lt. David Remiker of the Manitowoc County Drug Unit.
"We're trying to get you to understand the demon that is among us. I hear the same story over and over again. When someone gets addicted to drugs, it becomes their family ... their god," Green said.
'Dramatic rise' in drug abuse
"Manitowoc County has fallen victim to a dramatic rise in the amount of drug use and abuse, no ifs and or buts about it," Remiker said.
Officers, who used to see cases of nickels bags of pot in the field, now are coming across heroin, methamphetamine, opiates and other drugs with more serious consequences, he said.
Manitowoc County District Attorney Jacalyn LaBre said she has seen more meth cases in Manitowoc County in one year than she did during her entire 15 years working in the Racine County court system.
Drug dealers come to Manitowoc via Interstate 43 from Milwaukee, Chicago and Racine because they are running a business and know there are customers here and there is money here, she said.
Those who are responsible for providing drugs to people who die of an overdose are being prosecuted, LaBre said. "So far in 2014 we have issued six homicide cases — all fentanyl — and more are coming," she said.
Drug and alcohol abuse also gives birth to property thefts, armed robberies, domestic abuse and at-risk children, she said. "Every one of you is impacted by this," LaBre told the audience.
Drug-affected babies increasing
Even newborns are affected. "Manitowoc (County) is ranked No. 1 for drug-affected babies born at Aurora BayCare in the northeast region of Wisconsin," Geenen said.
In 2002, two Manitowoc County babies were affected; in 2013, there were 23, she said.
"When babies are born, they go through withdrawal, too," said Jodie Reno, Manitowoc County's Birth to 3 service coordinator and teacher, describing the affected baby's piercing cry, jitters, irritability, seizures, vomiting and diarrhea.
"The first three years are very vital to (the baby's) overall and brain development," she said. "We've really been caught by surprise by the number of (drug-related) cases."
Children of all ages suffer
Police officer Melisa Arps, school resource officer at Two Rivers High School, described how children across all grades are affected by the cycle of drug abuse on the part of the adults in their homes.
The children often are "physically, emotionally, mentally and developmentally" harmed, she said.
"Parents are the most influential people in a teen's life," said Paul Zenisek, lead therapist at Aurora Psychiatric Hospital in Milwaukee.
"Set clear rules. Know their friends. Trust your instincts. Check rooms, computers and cellphones," he said. "Your kid's bedroom is not a sovereign state."
Zenisek recommended eating meals together and keeping family time positive and fun.
Inmates detox in jail
Geenen also turned her attention to the local inmate population.
"One hundred forty-nine people detoxed in Manitowoc County Jail between Jan. 1, 2014, and Sept. 30, 2014. Jail is the only detox center in Manitowoc County," she said. "Huber inmates smuggle drugs into the jail for self-use and distribution."
Manitowoc County tops state and national figures when it comes to non-medical use of prescription drugs by teens 14 to 18, she said. Figures are 19 percent for Manitowoc County, compared with 18 percent in the United States and 15 percent in Wisconsin, Geenen said.
There is no age or social class that is unaffected by the drug problem, although people in ages 18 through 25 have seen the greatest increase, she said.
A 25-year-old Two Rivers man, who identified himself only as Ryan, talked of how drugs had him in their powerful grip.
"Remember how cold it was last winter? I was living in my car. That wasn't enough to quit," he told the audience. "I'm just thankful I got arrested."
Today, he joins recovering addicts Anthony Alvarado, of Appleton, and Doug Darby, of Suamico, co-founders of the group Rise Together, a recovery advocacy group, spread the message of hope to addicts.
Challenge to prescribing doctors
"We are working hard to develop a reputation to deter (drug dealers) from our community," Remiker said. "This is not a law-enforcement problem. This is a social problem. We need each and every one of you to help law enforcement."
He also challenged doctors who over-prescribe potentially dangerous pain killers.
"Until physicians are held accountable for the mass amount of prescriptions they write, nothing is going to get done," Remiker said.
Geenen spoke of how, when her daughter had wisdom teeth pulled, the dentist wrote a prescription for 30 strong pain-relieving pills. She refused to take home more than five pills.
"You have the ability to limit the number. It's simple to do," Geenen said.
"If you're not using it, get rid of it," she advised, pointing out that the Manitowoc and Two Rivers police departments have drop boxes designed to keep unused drugs off the streets and out of the hands of addicts.
Suzanne Weiss: (920) 686-2140 or email@example.com
Follow HTR Media's community conversation about Manitowoc County's drug problem and potential solutions all week.
Monday — Crime Prevention Sgt. Bruce Jacobs of the Manitowoc Police Department focuses on D.A.R.E — What is it and isn't.
Tuesday — Clinical therapist Deb Peterman of Holy Family Memorial Behavioral Health writes about breaking addiction's seductive hold.
Wednesday — Dr. Brian Woodbridge, internal medicine physician with Aurora Health Care, addresses reducing prescription drug abuse.
Thursday — Katie Wilsmann, co-chair and prevention manager with Healthiest Manitowoc County Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition, talks about coming together to fight drug abuse.
Friday — Lt. Dave Remiker of Manitowoc County Metro Drug Unit Investigations focuses on law enforcement and the challenges of drug abuse.
Saturday — Manitowoc County Coroner Curtis Green addresses the dramatic increase of drug overdoses in the county; and Manitowoc County Circuit Court Commissioner Patricia Koppa writes about how a treatment court can address the growing drug problem.