BENNINGTON -- Federal prosecutors in Vermont are encountering a growing demographic in the courtroom; family members of people who have died from using heroin.

The U.S. Attorney for the District of Vermont has chosen to respond by creating a support program for these people which they hope will develop over time into a state-wide support network.

"We're just getting it started, so we'll see how it goes and watch where it's going," said United States Attorney Tristram Coffin in an interview Tuesday. "I can tell you this is something we'll have an ongoing need for in Vermont."

The program consists of a three-hour presentation by an expert in dealing with unexpected deaths, said Aimee Stearns, victim-witness coordinator for the U.S. Attorney's Office District of Vermont. It is free, and will be held at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Burlington on March 26. Stearns said people can sign up by calling her at 802-651-8261 or be emailing her at Aimee.Stearns@usdoj.gov.

After the presentation, the expert will be available to meet with individual families. The third prong of the program is the creation of a statewide network of families who have lost someone to addiction.

Earlier this month, the Vermont Department of Health said three deaths in Addison County were the result of heroin overdoses. The drug had been mixed somehow with Fentanyl, a powerful narcotic painkiller that leads to users severely underestimating the dose they are giving themselves.


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Heroin-related deaths are not new, however, and this is not the first response Coffin's office had taken toward it. Coffin said he and Skip Gates, the father of a University of Vermont student who died of a heroin overdose a few years ago, go to high schools and colleges around the state to screen "The Opiate Effect," a documentary film showcasing the lives of heroin addicts, including Gates' son. Coffin said he plans to show the film in Bennington come April.

The movie is intended to prevent people from using heroin, but this new program is for the people whose lives have already been affected.

"We have had way too many families suffer the deaths of loved ones from drug overdoses," said Coffin in a release. "The pain from this is something they experience everyday. I hope this group provides some small measure of help to those grieving survivors and creates a network of mutual support for those who have suffered these devastating losses."

Concern about opiate addiction has been at the forefront of many levels of government. Gov. Peter Shumlin made addiction the central topic of his State of the State address, saying he would commit funding towards the problem. This past year, Bennington alone has seen two county-wide drug sweeps by the Vermont Drug Task Force, which has also done sweeps in other counties. The governor and legislators have praised law enforcement efforts, but have said the opiate problem can not be completely defeated by cops and courts alone.

Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at kwhitcomb@benningtonbanner.com or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr.