Troubling growth in opiate abuse baffles Berkshire court officials


Before a large gathering of probation officers, four Berkshire County judges spoke on Wednesday at Hillcrest Education Center about addiction, particularly opiate abuse, which can lead to heroin addiction.

The problems are shared by the rest of the state and exacerbated by the fact that the state does not have a drug court.

"It has me very baffled," Southern Berkshire District Court Judge Fredric Rutberg said. "How do you get someone to that point where they can make that step [of overcoming addiction], while they're falling and tripping along the way and they are hurting a lot of people besides themselves?"

Berkshire Juvenile Court Judge Joan McMenemy said the court has five custody hearings, with four involving heroin or heroin use. In addiction cases, McMenemy said it can be difficult getting the children the treatment they need.

"There's kind of a tension between imposing conditions on a juvenile, trying to get them in treatment as early as possible, when they are presumed innocent and they have certain rights," McMenemy said. "You can't force a condition on anyone without their consent. If you're looking for consent, sometimes it's there and sometimes it's not there."

The panel discussion on Wednesday followed a daylong overview to a group of 60 court officials - about half of them were probation officers - about the science behind addiction and how the county is tackling opiate and substance abuse. The event was organized by Amy Koenig, chief probation officer, with grant funding.

Berkshire Probate and Family Court Judge Richard Simons said probation officers are the courts "frontline" working with drug offenders. During the forum, it was repeatedly emphasized how a strong relationship between probation officer and drug offender can improve the chances of detoxification.

"The cost to society for untreated substance abuse is tremendous," Simons told The Eagle. "It's tremendous in terms of crime, family, dysfunction, divorces, and juvenile matters."

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"[Heroin is] different to me because the effects are so vivid," Rutberg told The Eagle following the panel discussion. "[The property crime] starts with the family of the addict but then spreads to strangers. If you can't be safe in your own home, you've lost a lot."

Superior Court Associate Judge John Agostini attributed 95 percent of those who come to Superior Court to some drug-related offense, whether it's selling, distributing, or committing a crime because they need money to get drugs. He said he's surprised how many abusers go back to jail because they use drugs and violate their probation.

"We have the ability to have the hammer over their head, and I am just amazed by the lack of success despite that ... It's an intractable problem," Agostini said.

The multiple panel speakers emphasized once addiction takes hold that the abuser no longer is able to make rational choices because the brain is rewired, with normal brain activity not returning for possibly as long as 14 months.

The lack of self-control from the abuser was emphasized by a guest speaker, " Ted," of Greenfield, who described the countless times he was sent back to jail for drug and alcohol addiction. Despite his numerous attempts to become sober, the drug and alcohol abuse would lead his marriage to fall apart and he'd lose custody of his three children. He would eventually achieve sobriety last year, but that was only after many missteps.

"They are just reflexively doing behaviors at that point," said Dr. Don Scherling, a psychiatrist at Berkshire Medical Center about addiction.

While addiction will lead to dysfunction, strong relationships account for 70 percent of the reason why people recovery, Scherling said. Other contributing factors that support recovery is whether the treatment is positively received, and the placebo factors of hope and expectancy.

Probation officer John Lander, of Pittsfield District Court, described opiate abuse as one of the " main problems we have right now," which afflicts 30 percent of the cases he oversees.

"I would say it relates to a majority of burglaries and property crimes comes down to drug addiction," Lander said. " It's a terrible, terrible problem."


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