Voices from the Front Lines
The Netflix documentary “Heroin(e)” follows the efforts of three extraordinary West Virginia women—Jan Rader, Patricia Keller and Necia Freeman—as they work to fight the opioid epidemic in Huntington, WV.
By Samantha Cart
“What is so powerful about this heroin?”
“The only way I know to explain it to you is getting high on heroin is what it would be like for you to kiss Jesus. That’s how powerful it is.”
These words, taken from the 2017 Netflix documentary “Heroin(e),” are defining for the drug epidemic that has gripped the nation for the past five years. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, there were more than 63,600 drug overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2016—a 21 percent increase from 2015. That year, West Virginia led the nation once again with a rate of overdose 162 percent higher than the national average.
This crisis has taken a particular hold on Cabell County, where more than 1,800 people overdosed on drugs in 2017 alone, resulting in 132 deaths. In a county of only 96,000 people, the numbers are staggering.
On September 12, 2017, Elaine McMillion Sheldon’s documentary, “Heroin(e),” made its debut on Netflix. The film follows the daily lives of three women—Huntington Fire Chief Jan Rader, Cabell County Judge Patricia Keller and Realtor Necia Freeman.
The documentary has been met with praise as a raw look into a debilitating epidemic the nation seems no closer to solving. Rader, Keller and Freeman are part of an intricate and unique team of first responders, medical professionals, legal professionals, public servants, faith-based organizations and ordinary citizens in Huntington that is working every day to help combat and treat opioid addiction in their hometown.
Fire Chief Jan Rader: Fighting More Than Fires
Jan Rader has worked for the Huntington Fire Department for 23 years, and in April 2017, she was sworn in as the first female fire chief in West Virginia’s history. As chief, Rader considers herself responsible for ensuring the safety of all 95 members of the department and all of the citizens of the city of Huntington—an admirable goal that isn’t limited to fighting fires.
“Twenty-six percent of calls for the fire department are for overdoses,” says Rader. “All firefighters in Huntington have a minimum of CPR and first-aid training. In 2012, we started making all new hires become EMT basics, and that requires 160 hours of medical training, which helps better prepare our firefighters to respond for EMS. About 50 percent of the time, we arrive before Cabell County EMS, so we have the opportunity to start life-saving procedures before they get there.”
Over the course of her career, Rader has worked as a medic, registered emergency room nurse and firefighter, and she has served on the Mayor’s Office of Drug Control Policy since 2014 as part of her personal commitment to fighting the addiction crisis that plagues Huntington. Part of that commitment includes changing the way overdose victims are treated by first responders.
“Everybody has been touched by addiction,” she says. “After working in the medical field, I can see how every one of us is just one bad time, one bad trauma away from being stuck in that rut, and it breaks my heart to see anybody mistreated. There is a stigma attached to suffering from addiction. We’re automatically assuming these people have no value, and that is not the case. I see people from every walk of life every day. I go into some of the richest homes in Huntington, and I go to some of the poorest. I have learned that your words can make or break somebody. We can’t fix somebody unless they want to be fixed, but we certainly don’t have to make their situation worse. I want people treated as I would want to be treated and as I would want my family members treated.”
Rader, Keller and Freeman are all connected by Cabell County’s adult drug court program, and despite her demanding job, Rader continues to serve on the treatment team, offering a medical perspective to help those in recovery. She uses her inside knowledge in a patient advocate role to help set up doctor appointments for drug court participants.
“I’ve learned more about addiction from those suffering from addiction than I ever did from a textbook or classroom,” she says. “Most of these people started out the same way—with a legal prescription for a narcotic. They became hooked very quickly, and when they couldn’t get pills anymore, they moved on to heroin. After working as a nurse, I also know there is a lot of red tape in the medical community. Even if you know the system, it’s hard to maneuver, and for somebody suffering from withdrawals, to maneuver that is almost impossible.”
Rader is confident a plateau in drug overdoses is on the horizon for the city of Huntington and is excited about the work the city has been doing to take care of its people.
“We had a lot of irons in the fire long before this documentary came about,” she says. “We have been writing grants and working diligently on this problem for three full years.”
One of the city’s initiatives, which recently came to fruition, was the creation of a quick response team, or QRT, that is made up of paramedics from Cabell County EMS, officers from the Huntington Police Department and mental health counselors who go out and visit people within 72 hours of their overdose to offer treatment services.
“You can see from the documentary that it’s a very negative encounter when someone overdoses,” says Rader. “It’s negative for the first responders who are seeing the same people over and over, for the person who overdoses, for any friends and family who are there witnessing this event and for anybody they encounter at the hospital. The good thing about the QRT is that when an undercover cop, health counselor and paramedic show up at your door and say, ‘We’re just here to check on you. We were worried about you. Here are some treatment options,’ that’s not a negative experience.”
According to Rader, while being featured in the “Heroin(e)” documentary has made her schedule busier, she is happy it is sparking important conversations.
“I certainly didn’t set out to be a spokesperson for first responders or the initiatives we are doing in Huntington, but I will gladly take on that role,” she says. “People need to understand what is going on because it’s not just in Huntington, it’s not just in West Virginia—it is all over the country.”
Since the documentary debuted, Rader has received emails and Facebook messages from more than 500 people all over the world, many of whom are in long-term recovery.
“They’re thankful somebody is a kind of cheerleader for them and recognizes the hardship they went through,” she says. “I think that is important because everybody needs a voice. One voice can change things. One person can change things. One word can change things.”
Judge Patricia Keller: A Compassionate Court
As one of West Virginia’s original family court judges, Patricia Keller has served as the chief family court judge for Cabell County since 1999. Keller’s social work and legal aid background also led her to volunteer for Cabell County’s juvenile drug court, which was used as a pilot program by the West Virginia Court System.
“When I first started in family court, we used to have issues where people would be concerned about the kids because the dad drank too much on the weekends, and we had to worry about his visitation,” she recalls. “After a while, I started to see that was no longer the only thing to worry about. We had moms and dads involved in pills, and we were putting a lot of kids in danger.”
After volunteering in the juvenile drug court for a little over a year, Keller was approached again in 2009, this time about taking on an adult drug court program. The state was willing to provide funding, but the county had to provide a volunteer prosecutor, defense attorney, judge and probation officer.
“Treatment courts vary from traditional criminal justice programs, and a number of judges weren’t interested in doing this type of program, which is why they asked me,” says Keller. “I became the only family court judge to preside over an adult drug court, a fact that continued until November 2017.”
The court would prefer a circuit court judge preside over adult drug court because it is a criminal justice-geared program and family courts don’t have criminal jurisdiction. However, Keller didn’t let that stop her from putting her whole heart into Cabell County’s growing drug court program. The volunteer position involves meeting with the treatment team, which consists of a judge, probation officer, social worker, prosecutor, defense attorney and community members, to discuss each participant, review cases and hold court every week.
“You’re looking at about five hours of your docket each week just doing those things, but that doesn’t count all the preparation time,” says Keller. “My probation officers always give me all the staffing notes the day before so I can take them home and review them that night. Plus, we try to motivate people through incentives and sanctions, so immediacy is very important. It doesn’t really help much to change a behavior if you do something wrong and then you have to wait a week or two to come to court to have it addressed. So we stay in touch by text and email, and I usually have some type of conference or meeting with at least one of the probation officers every day, whether it’s a drug court day or not.”
Despite her full schedule, Keller has cherished her time with the drug court program.
“My favorite part has been meeting the participants and getting to know them,” she says. “As a judge, normally your role is very detached and you don’t really know a lot of the back story about the people. With our folks in drug court, we follow them and their struggles from the beginning to graduation, and this is a program that lasts a minimum of a year and oftentimes more than that. I’ve met some of the nicest people—nice people in some really bad situations who have made some bad decisions.”
In 2016, Keller was part of a team that gained grant funding to expand the drug court system to include the Women’s Empowerment and Addiction Recovery, or W.E.A.R., program, which is for women whose backgrounds include prostitution and trafficking to support a drug habit. The program provides extra counseling and trauma therapy. The grant, which just completed its second of three years, allowed the county to grow the drug court program by one-third and hire a second probation officer.
Since the debut of “Heroin(e),” Keller has stepped aside from the day-to-day operations of drug court in order to focus more on her family court position, but the experience will no doubt provide a unique perspective for practicing family law.
“I now have the opportunity to look for other ways to work within the drug issue,” she says. “One of the things we’re seeing right now in family court is a huge number of grandparents raising their grandchildren because the children’s parents are either in the madness, on the streets, in jail or dead from drugs. I really want to try to see what types of resources we can put together to help these folks. I think my time in drug court has helped me see different sides of this issue. I have dealt with mothers and fathers who had their children staying with other relatives while they were addicted to drugs. Then when they started the recovery process and wanted to reconnect with their families, I’ve seen the hesitation and distrust from those families because they’ve heard all the excuses before. I think the biggest thing I’ve discovered is drug court is just one layer. This drug problem is like an onion, and there are just so many layers of things we need to tackle.”
Necia Freeman: A Boots-on-the-Ground Ministry
Necia Freeman, a realtor for Old Colony Realtors, is a lifelong West Virginian and Cabell County resident. She helped start the Backpacks and Brown Bags outreach in 2010 with the original intention of serving the residents within a 1-mile radius of 20th Street in Huntington, which included Spring Hill Elementary School. The group’s first action was packing brown bags of food for students who weren’t getting enough to eat on the weekends.
While the youth group at Lewis Memorial Baptist Church has since taken over the backpack part of the ministry, for Freeman, serving these children was the first step in a long journey in loving her Huntington neighbors. The second step came in 2011 when she read a story in the newspaper about a woman who was found murdered 40 minutes from Huntington. The article stated that the woman was a known prostitute who had been shot.
“And that was the end of the story,” Freeman says of the article. “It bothered me. I needed back story. I kept waiting for something, but nothing came about. Did she have kids? Was she a mom? A sister? It just seemed like nobody cared.”
About a week later, Freeman found out the deceased woman was the mother of one of the Spring Hill Elementary students the backpack ministry served.
“We had been trying to reach these kids, trying to show them Christ through food, but I realized if we were really going to change their lives here on earth, we were going to have to reach their mothers,” she says.
That’s when Freeman became consumed with a new goal: taking the brown bag lunches to the streets. This new street ministry launched in November 2011. That first week, she prepared 12 brown bags to hand out.
“I thought, I’ll start friendships with these women and help them find Jesus. Then they’ll detox, go to rehab, and their lives and their kids’ lives will change—all because I gave them a brown bag lunch,” she recalls. “It didn’t happen that way. I had no experience with prostitution before this, but I’m a realtor, so I suspicioned that I knew where they were. We ended up being led to Sixth Avenue in Huntington, which we now call Brown Bag Boulevard. That’s where we met the majority of the women we serve. Now we go once a week. It hasn’t been simple, but it’s been really cool. The Lord’s plans are always much more intriguing than my own.”
The brown bags are filled with snacks and include a card with a special phone number the girls can call if they need help. “The card just says we don’t want anything from you, God loves you, and we’re here if you need us,” says Freeman.
Along the way, Freeman was introduced to a world she had never known. She learned to navigate the criminal justice system and started visiting the girls in jail. As the ministry grew, more and more people wanted to help.
“One of my friends at church wanted to help, so I asked her if she wanted to write letters to the girls who were in jail,” says Freeman. “Now every girl gets a handwritten letter within 24 hours of her arrest. Some of the girls have been written to for six years, and they’ve become our friends.”
In order to protect their identities, the Backpacks and Brown Bags ministry gives each woman a fake name so their stories can be shared. Hope, Grace, Patience—these women are now part of Freeman’s daily life.
“Hope is the first girl we met that changed my life,” says Freeman. “She is the one from the documentary who said getting high was like kissing Jesus. She is still a dear friend. She got married at my house three years ago, and she calls me three or four times a week.”
Freeman’s work does not end with her once-a-week drive around the city. She is an important resource to the women she serves as well as the drug court treatment team, helping people get into rehab, driving them to the hospital, sitting with them in the emergency room, making visits to jails and prisons, attending parole hearings and helping secure furniture, bedding and clothing for those in need.
“We have working relationships with a lot of rehab facilities,” she says. “The Lord has opened up a lot of doors for people who love these girls as much as we do to help where we can’t. Some of the girls come back to Huntington and do fine. Some of them say they can never come back. We are pleased with whichever answer they give because that’s what they learned while they were away for six months or a year getting clean—what their triggers are, what makes them strong and what kind of life they want.”
Six years later, the Backpacks and Brown Bags ministry is still going strong, but it is nothing like Freeman planned.
“We’ve lost some girls,” says Freeman. “Some of them have overdosed and died. There are horror stories, but we’ve also seen transformed lives. We’ve seen them go to rehab, graduate from college, hold down full-time jobs, get married, have children and contribute to society. The answer to their success, the ones that have made it and have had a transformation, is Jesus.”
Since 2011, this ministry has passed out brown bags to more than 325 sex workers in Huntington, the youngest of which was 13 years old, and, according to Freeman, hardly a week goes by that she does not meet someone new.
“These women have never lived a normal life, yet society expects them to,” she says. “Everybody says, ‘Just go to rehab.’ Well, Huntington has eight detox beds. How long would it take just to get all 325 of these women through seven days of detox? How long would the 325th girl have to wait for her turn?”
Freeman’s ministry work is what led her to join the drug court treatment team. When the prosecuting attorney for the City of Huntington noticed her sitting in the back row of the courtroom for a variety of drug-related hearings, he wanted to know why. When he found out, he insisted she join the treatment team. While the work is rewarding, it takes an emotional toll.
“With the brown bag girls, I can laugh until I cry, and I can be so mad at them I slam my car doors,” she says. “One of the girls, Grace, is newly off the streets, and every time I see her, I grin from ear to ear. She makes me so proud. It’s changed my life more than it’s changed theirs, I feel sure. They just need a friend. They just need somebody to take their hand and say, ‘I’ll go with you. I’ll show you how to get help, and if I don’t know how, we’ll find a way together.’ Not all of them made these choices. Some of them were just handed this life, and it’s all they knew to do. For us to give them a choice, we have to give them hope, and we have to show them what that is because they don’t even know what hope looks like.”
One Day at a Time
Concerned citizens and frustrated authorities from every field continue to offer opinions on prevention, supply control, treatment, recovery and reintegration. Public health, medical, social, spiritual, legal—every field of thought has a solution. While we wait for the ace, Rader, Keller and Freeman are on the frontlines, offering something both elementary and universal: hope.
The “Heroin(e)” documentary does not offer a foolproof plan or a secret weapon for overcoming drug addiction. Instead, it tells a story about people meeting people where they are and helping them take their addiction one day at a time. It is about a group of three West Virginia women offering the essentials, whether that be food and a toothbrush or life-saving measures like CPR and naloxone, without judgement. It is about investing in and caring for West Virginia’s most precious resource—its people.