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Opioid crisis touches wildlife center in Weymouth

From left, Weymouth police Sergeant James St. Croix, Massachusetts Bar Association president Robert Harnais, Newton District Court Judge Mary Beth Heffernan, Norfolk District Attorney Michael Morrissey, New England Wildlife Center executive director Katrina Bergman, wildlife center chief executive Dr. Gregory Mertz, recovery coach Meghan Perry, and Norfolk County Sheriff Michael Bellotti at a recent gathering in Weymouth to discuss the opioid crisis.New England Wildlife Center

One in a series of occasional articles about opiate abuse and its consequences.

WEYMOUTH — When law enforcement officials and heroin addicts gather in the same room, it takes little imagination to assume the worst. But on a clear and crisp night recently, an unlikely organization brought those two groups together in the name of hope and recovery.

“Drug addiction is a community problem,” said Katrina Bergman, executive director of the New England Wildlife Center, which hosted the gathering. “And it’s going to take the whole community to solve it.”

The meeting was spurred by the death of a former employee at the center, Kyle Richards, who died of a drug overdose early last year, Bergman said.

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These stories are far from uncommon. A recent report by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health estimates that 1,379 people died of opioid overdoses last year statewide, an 8 percent increase from 2014 fatalities. At the gathering, Norfolk District Attorney Michael Morrissey said opioids cause about three deaths per week in his county.

But the numbers only tell the clinical part of the story. It was the emotional testimony from Richards’s mother, Kristina, and recovering addict Meghann Perry that brought some at the meeting to tears — and most to their feet.

Although death is never an easy subject, Richards said in an interview after the event that telling the story of her son’s dying is less difficult than most would assume.

“What makes it easy for me is seeing all these kids losing their lives to this epidemic,” she said, “and seeing parents and family members and friends continue to suffer because of what happened to their loved one.”

Telling her son’s story, Richards said, helps others understand that opioid addiction is not something to be ashamed of. She said she hopes that confiding publicly about her family’s tragedy will encourage youngsters to abstain from drugs, comfort those grieving the loss of a loved one, and reduce the stigma of heroin addiction.

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As for Perry, telling her story of addiction is actually a pleasant experience, she said in an interview before her presentation. Originally from Scituate, she was an A student before she began struggling with addiction, she told the gathering. Her years-long battle, fought in later years with her daughter by her side, resulted in multiple run-ins with law enforcement, including conviction for drug trafficking, she said.

Perry said she was given many chances at recovery by the criminal justice system — opportunities she credits for her healing. Now in her early 40s, Perry is a recovery coach and public speaker out of Bridgewater, and says she hasn’t used heroin for almost five years.

“I want to be living proof for those who are in recovery that they can do it, too,” she said.

More than 100 people attended the gathering at the wildlife center, a nonprofit that provides veterinary care to both wild creatures and a wide range of animal pets. Attendees heard from eight speakers and met with 11 organizations on the subject of reducing the stigma of drug addiction.

Various officials, including Judge Mary Beth Heffernan, presiding justice of Newton District Court and the Quincy drug court, Norfolk County Sheriff Michael Bellotti, and Weymouth police Sergeant James St. Croix, testified about heroin’s impact.

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Massachusetts Bar Association president Robert Harnais spoke about his work with Section 35 cases — those involving the state statute that allows families to commit a loved one to treatment against their will if they can prove that the individual’s addiction makes them a risk to themselves or others.

Lawyers across Eastern Massachusetts are now volunteering to represent families in Section 35 cases, he said, as many people cannot afford it. As part of this effort, the bar association has created a 24-hour hot line for people with questions about this law, he said.

“There isn’t one answer” to the opioid crisis, Harnais said in an interview. “If we all try to solve it, we might have that moment of clarity.”

The crisis has spurred action and sparked discussions across the state. In March, Governor Charlie Baker signed a bill he touted as “the most comprehensive measure in the country to combat opioid addiction,” according to a Globe article. And in April, Quincy College hosted two summits on solutions to the crisis, one in Quincy and the other in Plymouth.

The war against opiate abuse is far from won.

“We need to all step up and work together to figure out how to treat addiction as a disease, not a crime,” said Stephen Martin, a recovering addict who works at the wildlife center as a director of various programs and hosts a weekly open mic session called “Catbird Cafe.”


Bret Hauff can be reached at bret.hauff@globe.com. Follow him @b_hauff.

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