In Randolph, Small-Town Culture Can Be A Barrier To Fighting Addiction

Jan 13, 2016

Walk through the business district in the Orange County community of Randolph and you get the sense of a town that's doing pretty well. There are nice restaurants, a locally owned variety store, a little movie theater and a couple of busy cafes.

But a series of overdoses, including the death of a man in a convenience store restroom last spring, have underscored the heroin problem that exists here, as it does in so many other communities.  

This story is part of State of Recovery, VPR's week-long look at the progress that's been made in fighting opiate addiction in Vermont and the problems that remain. Read more here.

Not long ago, Concepcion Cruz was part of Randolph's drug problem. Over coffee one morning, he related the harrowing story of how his drug use landed him in federal and state prisons.

"I had possession of a stolen firearm, I had aggravated assault. I know I did it, so I take full responsibility, but when you don't remember doing something because you're blacked out from using drugs, it's hard," says Cruz.

After five years in recovery, Cruz is a far cry from the person he describes. Dressed in an argyle sweater and bow tie, he talks openly about his past and how easy it was for him to buy drugs in Randolph, despite the wholesome scene outside the café window.

"The thing is, small towns - sometimes their charm can be deceptive to the average citizen," he says. "That makes it harder for the community to know that it's going on and want to be involved in trying to be proactive against it."

Cruz knows from experience that drug use in Randolph may not be obvious, but it has begun to intrude on the lives of its residents.

Randolph Police Department Patrolman Sam Lambert says an increasing amount of the force's work is related to drugs: thefts, domestic disputes, trips to the hospital and calls to accompany state social workers to remove a newborn from the home of an addicted parent.

"Small towns - sometimes their charm can be deceptive to the average citizen. That makes it harder for the community to know that it's going on and want to be involved in trying to be proactive against it." - Concepcion Cruz

Lambert says sometimes the signs of the problem are right underfoot.

"We've gone and retrieved needles from the playground," he says.

Lambert and Cruz are part of a group that hopes to come up with ways to deal with Randolph's drug problem. This is still early days for the group, and after several meetings a course of action isn't yet clear.

One thing is clear, though: The roots of drug problem are deep and extensive. They're nourished by alienation, mental health issues, challenges accessing treatment and a drug economy that makes communities like this one a lucrative market.

Finding an effective way for a group of volunteers to confront drug addiction won't be easy. Among the questions the group is asking are, "What treatment and recovery services are available?" And, "How accessible are they?"

A newly-formed group of volunteers hopes to come up with ways to deal with Randolph's drug problem. After several meetings, a course of action isn't yet clear.
Credit Steve Zind / VPR

Griffin Payne, who has a background as a treatment and care provider, says when he needed help, he had a hard time getting it.

"I'm a mental health professional. I know how to navigate mental health services," Payne told the group at one meeting. "For three and a half months, I got no help. I got closed doors. Couldn't even get most places to return my phone calls. If we're going to be turning people to get help, we better make sure that help is there."

Within the group there's been discussion of tackling larger issues like making young people feel more valued in the community.

But there's also the recognition those big cultural changes can take time, and something needs to be done more immediately. 

"I don't know if we are addressing the immediacy as much as I am thinking, because I feel like we are in crisis mode and we are doing some things that I'm not sure I would put at the top of my list," Karen McGinty told the group.

"I got closed doors. Couldn't even get most places to return my phone calls. If we're going to be turning people to get help, we better make sure that help is there." - Griffin Payne, mental health professional

As a clinician at the local Clara Martin Center, McGinty works with people in recovery.

She says the widespread misconception that addiction is a moral weakness, not a disease, makes staying in recovery harder in small towns like this. 

"You can't be anonymous in Randolph. In Randolph every one of my clients run into their old connections, people they got high with or people who knew them when they were junkies. That's hard to get past and go forward with your life," McGinty says.

She would like the group to work on educating the public about addiction; others see a need to focus more on prevention and young people.

Randolph selectman Tom Schersten, another group member, says he's seen the benefits of the young people who attend Friday evening gatherings he's organized at a local church.

"In Randolph, every one of my clients run into their old connections, people they got high with ... That's hard to get past and go forward with your life." - Karen McGinty, Clara Martin Center clinician

"I see kids at risk who have come to our youth group and I think it makes a huge difference," he says.

At Randolph Union High School, student Lilly Lajoie says there's little to do in town for people her age. 

"Usually I just chill at home and have some friends come over. We'll watch Netflix and stuff. I do wish that there was more to do because I do think that's why teens, if they don't have a lot of distractions, they'll go and do self-destructive behaviors" Lajoie says. 

Lajoie's stepfather is in recovery. She's one of many young people who have been eyewitnesses to addiction.  

Fellow student Kolby Carpenter is another. He says fear, worry and confusion were all part of his reaction to two family members who were using heroin.

"I ended up being with them one time when they had to use. I was nervous about it. It kind of scared me a little," says Carpenter.

As the town's new task force tries to find a focus for its efforts, it's telling, and a reflection of the extent of the problem, that for a school project Carpenter is producing a documentary about addiction in Randolph.