My name is Miller VanFossen, and I’m a Probation Officer in Glen Allen, Virginia. In my experience working with people addicted to heroin and opioids, I’ve learned how influential a person’s support system and probation officer can be on the road to recovery. This article is based on my book Effective Heroin & Opioid Supervision. I hope to help families (and other probation officers) go the extra mile in supporting their loved ones through the darkest times of their lives.
The Support System
An important area that should be used to improve a client’s recovery is their support system. Talking with the wife, husband, mother, father, or whoever is supporting the client in recovery can be very beneficial. Educating members of the client’s support system about the drug the client is recovering from, and helping them understand what’s actually going on in the client’s mind, is another way of increasing the client’s chance of success. Teach family members about what will help and what can hurt the client in his recovery.
Involving the family also helps hold the client accountable to more than just the probation officer. Members of the client’s support system can be an added resource and another pair(s) of eyes for you. It’s also helpful for family members know what is expected of their loved one. Be sure to tell them to focus more on the positive things their loved one is doing versus what s/he has done wrong in the past.
Learning About Addiction
Involving the support system needs to be done tactfully. In many instances, family or other support system members are the ones who have been hurt the most by the client’s addiction. They may have had jewelry and valuable family heirlooms pawned to feed the client’s addiction, and because of the lies and manipulation members of the support system have been through, trust in the relationship is usually nonexistent at this point.
Educate support system members about the disease, and let them know that, at the time their loved one was in full-blown addiction mode, he or she basically wasn’t fully in the driver’s seat. Rebuilding trust is something that will take a while. But if everyone involved is working together and moving in the same direction, having members of the support system on board will help the client stay on course and accelerate the recovery process.
In the past, members of the client’s support system probably said things to the client thinking they were helping when, in reality, it was making things worse. So educate support system members about what to say, what not to say, what to do, and what not to do.
I’ve often heard clients talk about their support system, and how they hear things like: “I know you’re high right now,” or “All you do is get high, and that’s all you’re ever going to do.” Statements like these usually just upset the client and make things worse. If the client wasn’t high at that point, you can believe they’re going to go out and get high because, in their mind, they are already getting blamed for being high, so they might as well actually get high.
On the other side of the spectrum, a probation officer needs to be on the lookout for enabling tendencies from the support system. Without fail, I see parents and other support system members giving clients money because (they said) the client ‘needed it’ for food, shelter, or things of that nature. People with opioid addiction are very convincing at making support system members think they are almost at the point of death and, that if they don’t get a certain amount of money, they are not being loved or cared about. The reality is, money given to them is likely going to heroin. Considering the things dealers are cutting heroin with nowadays (see this article on fentanyl), that five dollars you give him for “gas” could very well take his life.
I’d also recommend that the client, support system, and probation officers get naloxone in the event of an overdose. Naloxone is a medication that can reverse the effects of an overdose. It’s very easy to administer and has saved many lives. Some people are reluctant to keep naloxone on hand and say that they will wait for the first responders to get there to administer it. What if the first responders don’t make it in time? I have also heard of first responders having already used up their supply of naloxone on patients earlier in the day, and that by the time they respond to your call, there isn’t any left.
It’s very important to have probation clients start rebuilding the bridges they have burned through the years since they started using. This can be an emotional time for the client, but I think it is a very important process to start. It can also give a client the opportunity to offload some guilt.
Usually, I have a client make a list of all the people s/he thinks s/he has hurt. Then we talk about the list. I have the client write a letter to one person at a time telling him or her about the client’s struggle, what s/he has learned, and an apology for anything that s/he has done to harm the relationship.
The letter doesn’t stop with the apology. The client needs to reach out to the loved one and ask what can be done to make amends for what s/he has done. Hold clients accountable! Demonstrate to the person who was hurt and taken advantage of that these aren’t just words, your probation client will back them up with action. This can make the relationship rebuilding process with that person carry more weight.”
Miller Van Fossen is from Glen Allen, Virginia. He has a bachelors degree in business management from Averett University, and says “My goal is to change the way the criminal justice system and families of the addicted persons engage the heroin and opioid population.” You can find his book Effective Heroin & Opioid Supervision on Amazon.com, and engage him on Twitter as @MillerVanFossen.