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Decision to post divisive photo of drug abusers, boy born of desperation

Ben Schmitt
| Monday, Sept. 26, 2016, 7:48 p.m.
Couple who overdosed with their child in the vehicle.
Couple who overdosed with their child in the vehicle.
Couple who overdosed with their child in the vehicle.
Couple who overdosed with their child in the vehicle.

Two faces of the opioid crisis blasted across the Internet from a small-town Ohio Facebook page: a pair of adults slumped over in the front seat of an SUV with a 4-year-old boy awake in the back seat.

The pasty-skinned couple, mouths agape, appeared to be dead.

The little boy, clad in a dinosaur T-shirt, looked emotionless.

Jolted by the Sept. 8 photos, I sought out the person who helped decide to show them to the world: East Liverpool, Ohio, police Chief John Lane. I wanted to gain insight into his thought process. He explained to me that the woman pictured is the boy's grandmother.

“Not his mother. His grandmother,” Lane told me last week over the phone. “We knew the pictures would shake the trees, but we desperately need help here.”

Lane and the city took some criticism for declining to hide the boy's face.

“BLUR THIS CHILD'S FACE OUT. HE DESERVES PRIVACY,” one person wrote on the city's Facebook page.

The city of East Liverpool explained its reasoning.

“We feel we need to be a voice for the children caught up in this horrible mess,” the city wrote on Facebook. “This child can't speak for himself, but we are hopeful his story can convince another user to think twice about injecting this poison while having a child in their custody.”

Lane agreed.

“Imagine all the kids around the country stuck in the same situation,” he said. “And, as a police department, we are chasing overdose cases all the time. We need resources to combat this problem.”

Opioid addiction drives overdose deaths in the United States, with 18,893 deaths related to prescription pain relievers, and 10,574 deaths coming from heroin in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Unintentional drug overdoses caused the deaths of 3,050 Ohio residents in 2015, the highest number on record, compared to 2,531 in 2014, according to the Ohio Department of Health.

Lane and his city of 11,000 are right in the thick of it. About one-third of its residents live in poverty, he said.

“There aren't any treatment programs besides the three-day program at the local hospital,” he said. “Three days doesn't cut it with addiction.”

Were the photos appropriate? I was definitely moved by them and appreciated the purpose of bringing attention to the opioid epidemic.

I ran it by Stuart Fisk, a nurse practitioner at Allegheny Health Network's Allegheny General Hospital. He's worked with HIV patients and drug users for 25 years and helped build an exchange program for addicts.

Fisk understood the police department's desperation. He wasn't necessarily on board with the photo's release.

“I feel very strongly that publishing a photo like that also increases the shame and stigmatization of people with substance-abuse disorders,” Fisk said. “Especially in small towns like that, they are watching their kids die and seeing the devastation from this epidemic. This is a disease, and we need to understand it as a disease — not a moral failure.”

In the East Liverpool case, paramedics revived the couple with Narcan. The boy has been placed with a relative in South Carolina.

The couple pictured in the photo pleaded guilty to several crimes and are both serving jail sentences.

James Acord, the man who was driving, is serving a year for child endangerment, driving under the influence and other charges, Lane said. Police suspect they overdosed on heroin laced with the elephant tranquilizer carfentanil.

“I'm hoping a treatment program plays a large role in the jail time,” Lane said. “And I hope somebody truly steps up to help that kid.”

Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991 or bschmitt@tribweb.com.

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