On the Frontline
By Katie Coulthard and Rochelle Kirkham
Drug use in regional Victoria has more than doubled in the past five years. Crystal methamphetamine, better known as ‘ice’, is infiltrating every area of the state. Big drug busts in small towns dominate local newspaper headlines. In one community with a population of just a few thousand, $40,000 worth of ice was seized in one single raid.
People seeking help are told to wait. Acceptance to a program is rare, some stay on a waiting list for months and the window of opportunity slams shut before assistance is provided. Taxpayers fund 200 odd addiction rehabilitation beds in Victoria yet this isn’t meeting the demand.
We take you to places across the state to meet the people on the frontline.
THE FIRST WAVE
“I knew Jack had a problem with drugs,” Rob van Rooy speaks frankly. We’re sitting in a busy Inverloch cafe.
“But it wasn’t until quite late in the piece that we realised ice was the biggest problem.”
Rob’s son Jack, now 24, started experimenting with drugs at the age of 15 and has been a full-time ice user since he was 17. It was when Jack began experiencing psychosis that his family looked to residential rehabilitation for help last year. But there was nowhere to look close to their home in South Gippsland. They found the closest available residential rehab bed in a private centre in Geelong, almost three hours drive from their home.
Families like Rob’s across the state are battling drug addiction. People living in remote areas were twice as likely as those in major cities to have recently used methamphetamines in 2013, according to a Crime Statistics Agency Report.
The low cost of ice makes it enticing. It is easily accessible - a lot is made in Australia - but it’s a drug you can’t experiment with. It’s extremely addictive and the effects are dangerous. Those taking higher doses can experience severe anxiety and aggression, feelings which can escalate to paranoia or psychotic episodes. Andrew Hick, Manager of Odyssey House Circuit Breaker, says what an ice addict will do in 18 months is equivalent to the damage an alcoholic will do in 20 years.
“Often the downward spirals are very dramatic,” he says.
Rob says ice destroyed Jack’s relationships.
“His ability to hold a job and make any meaningful contribution to society drifted away,” he says.
After seeing a specialist GP, Rob began to understand how his son’s brain function had been affected.
He says Jack would spend up to five days using ice and a mix of other illicit drugs. Following this, he would take GHB (a depressant drug) to be able to sleep for 20 hours and possibly go to work the next day.
“He became a completely different person.”
Rob’s initial search for rehab began with publicly funded centres. His search found no empty beds.
“It was a six to twelve month waiting list,” he says.
Desperate to help his struggling son, he turned to privately run facilities instead.
“We could see Jack dead before then.”—Rob Van Rooy
BREAKING THE CIRCUIT
“We are trying to break the chain of addiction in our community.”—Andrew Hick, Manager Odyssey House Benalla
Regional Victoria’s drug addicts are left in the dark.
Of the 200 odd publicly funded rehabilitation beds in Victoria, only 15 are located in a regional area.
It’s a three and a half hour drive to Melbourne for an addict in Horsham to access the closest rehabilitation service. Rob Van Rooy travelled in excess of 3,000 kilometres a week to get help for Jack, driving between their home in Gippsland to the doctor in Bunyip, Jack’s rehab centre in Geelong and family counselling in Melbourne.
“It affected my work,” Rob says.
“I was taking days off for doctor’s visits. It’s all consuming, it really is.”
“People in the country by and large don’t go to Melbourne to continue or start their rehab experience. It’s too big a move.”— Andrew Hick, Manager Odyssey House Benalla
New South Wales has up to 800 publicly funded beds, around 600 more than Victoria, a state with a similar population.
“Here we have a very small amount of beds and the same demand,” says Andrew Hick, Manager of Odyssey House in Benalla.
“Consequently it takes a very long time to get into rehab.”
Winning a place in one of Victoria’s 200 publicly funded beds is a battle. Andrew says there is up to 100 people on the list at any given time.
“We struggle to get people in when they need to come in,” he says.
“I don’t think it would be controversial to say we need more beds.”
Benalla’s Odyssey House program named Circuit Breaker is a service for a lucky few.
“The objective of a Therapeutic Community is the restoration of the capacity to strive and achieve, integrated with the capacity to love and be loved”— Rex Haig
We sit speaking to Andrew in a quaint blue cottage at the edge of the farm property that was set up as Odyssey House in 2004. A knock at the door interrupts our conversation, “what veggies do I put in the curry Andrew?”. The residents are cooking tonight’s dinner in the open-plan kitchen at the main house.
“You have to be an expert at everything when you work here,” Andrew chuckles.
Shaunna*, currently the oldest resident at Odyssey House, is graduating on Monday. She’s at the conclusion of the six week intensive program.
“I am looking forward to going home and starting a new life in the community,” she says as we stand by the women’s cabin in the immaculately tended garden grounds.
Josh, who is only half way through the program, has already applied for a two week extension.
“For me this is home,” he says.
“I don’t have anywhere else to go.”
Our tour of the centre, led by residents Shaunna, Josh and Violet* begins inside their living quarters. There are no clocks on the walls. Violet is re-setting the time, ensuring each clock is synchronised.
“We can’t have people rocking up late to programs,” she says.
“We need to adhere to the strict schedule for routine and structure, to get us out of the habit doing nothing.”
Odyssey’s residents awake at 7am. Programs throughout the day include cooking, gardening, cleaning, counselling and group meetings. Shaunna says there is no discrimination between the jobs men and women are given to do.
“Even the women in here get on and do the ride-on-mower,” she says.
Violet laughs, “well that happened because the men broke it.”
“It’s a beautiful place,” Violet says.
“But it’s not easy being here. You have got to do the work to succeed.”
The quotes plastered across the wall at different corners of the house testify to the difficulty of overcoming addiction. Shaunna’s favourite is one by Mohammad Ali. She points it out to us after sitting at a long communal table for a fresh and delicious lunch the residents prepared.
“I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion’.”—Muhammed Ali
At the rear of the property is Odyssey’s quiet space of reflection– a stone wall of colour and words, created by the residents. It is Josh’s favourite place.
“It’s what has kept me here at times,” he says.
Regardless of how many motivational quotes are on show, there’s circumstances when it’s not enough inspiration to keep going. Josh left Odyssey House feeling ready to move forward after just a week in the program, only to return soon after. He thought he had the support he needed at home.
“It didn’t work. I went back to my mother’s but she is a drug user.”
David*, like Josh, has also returned. He relapsed within three hours of finishing the program a couple of weeks ago.
“Six weeks wasn’t enough for me,” he says.
“It was hard. You think you are doing so well in here and as soon as you step foot outside it’s a completely different environment. It’s only you.”
For now, David is back in rehab and is planning to move to long term facility at Odyssey House in Lower Plenty, a program with a minimum three month stay.
“I now know for myself what needs to be done to undertake recovery. And for me, long term rehab is the only option.”
David tells us this story in the ‘sacred room’, a space designed to host to group meetings and counselling– a stark contrast to the main living area next door where it’s a hub of activity. The kitchen team are busy cooking and other residents are blowing up red and blue balloons for tomorrow’s AFL Grand Final.
A warm and fragrant smell wafts from the kitchen. Josh says the cooking program has helped him realised the importance of good food and nutrition. He pulls a small green notebook from his grey tracksuit pant pocket. It is filled with recipes he has been shown during his time at Odyssey. The book was a gift from his son before he entered the program.
Children are often a catalyst for seeking help.
Violet’s 11-year-old daughter is staying with her grandmother while she is at Odyssey.
“I know that I’ve damaged my daughter. Not treating her with respect and snapping at her when I’m coming down from marijuana use,” she says.
A comment from Shaunna’s 12-year-old grandson was a trigger for her move to rehab.
“Grandma, are you going to end up in an old people’s home with Alzheimer's from drinking so much?,” her grandson had said one night.
“How do you think I felt hearing that?,” she asks us and holds out her thumb and forefinger. “I felt that big”.
Sitting at the table for lunch, Amy* says her 8-year-old daughter was continually asking to have friends over to their home. She now realises her daughter was scared of being alone with her.
“My daughter has seen and heard too much,” she says.
Amy says when she first applied to a residential rehabilitation centre she was told the wait to get in was six months.
“I needed recovery, I wanted recovery,” she says.
"I knew I'd be dead in six months."—Amy*
“People feel let down by the wait lists. They’re disappointed,” Amy says.
“They just go, ‘ah, I’ll stay off me face until the six months’. But by the time the six months comes around they could be dead, they could be in jail, they could be anywhere.”
AT A STANDSTILL
Ideas of change hindered by community conservatism, misconceptions and set ways
The landscape is sparse and distance between towns stretches further as the kilometers climb on the car’s speedometer. We’re on the Hume Highway driving through the Goulburn Valley region in the state’s north-west where communities have battled with the problem of substance abuse for decades.
Years ago, alcohol was the drug of choice. Since 2015, it’s ice.
The combination of low-socio economic status amongst the population and the limited provision of services in isolated areas has undesirable consequences. The ripple effect of the rampant problem across each community may give reason to the abnormally high crime rates including offences related to family violence.
“Recent intervention orders in Shepparton Court showed ice features in nearly every matter,” local magistrate Stella Stuthbridge recently told the Goulburn Valley Community Legal Centre, in a report published online.
“The litany of abuse and the level of uncontrolled violence are indescribable.”
For those who once called the capital of the region Shepparton home, hearing of its downward spiral is no eye-opener.
“Drugs were normalised when we were growing up as kids. A lot of my friends were experimenting in primary school but maybe part of me didn’t see it because I was so young,” says Adam, known to most Australian’s only by his surname– Briggs– a prolific rap musician.
One of his most popular songs Sheplife tells a story of existing in a place he says is ‘too big to be a small town, too small to be a city’. He describes it as an environment with deeply ingrained social problems, drugs being one of them.
“I remember and know of so many people not coming out the other side of addiction and succumbing to it.”
Noticing the challenges facing the area, earlier this year the Australian Community Support Organisation (ACSO) developed and submitted a proposal to the Moira Shire Council (a local government area in the region) for a 48 bed ‘addiction recovery centre’ providing a structured program for alcohol and drug dependent adults at an old homestead located just outside of Numurkah.
Published on the council website and in community bulletins in April, submissions from residents, business owners and community groups were encouraged. A month later, over 200 submissions were received– 130 against the facility and just 65 in support.
Deputy Mayor of Moira Shire Council Cr Ed Cox says the topic polarised his constituents.
“I’ve never seen an issue that has been so emotional for a community to get its head around,” he says.
“People were either pig-headed about it in their disagreement or they were desperate to find a way to help.”
Ed, a member of the council since 2003, was disappointed by the way ACSO worked with Moira Shire.
“It was handled wrong from the get-go…the first I heard of it was in the media. As a councillor, that was pretty average,” he explains.
“We should have had a briefing or professional presentation before the public was informed and able to comment.”
In June, the council called a meeting to reach a decision. Despite ‘inconsistencies with planning scheme policies and provisions’ including worry the location was inappropriate due to environmental hazards, it was recommended ACSO’s application be approved for ‘overall community benefit of such a facility’. However, the majority rejected the proposal and after several divisions it was thrown out.
The dilapidated homestead lies roughly 10 kilometres outside the township. It is an isolated spot currently only accessible by a narrow unsealed road. A visit to the area does indeed illustrate concerns raised by Moira Shire. The site is a direct target for experiencing the brunt of severe weather events¬- inundation by flood in the winter and torched by grass fire in the summer.
Ed does not see why local residents are concerned. Those who do live nearby are hundreds of metres if not kilometres away from the proposed site.
“It’s not all doom and gloom. You wouldn’t even know the place in Benalla is there so this wouldn’t be any different.”
AT A CROSSROAD
On the fence
While Greater Shepparton and the Goulburn Valley/Hume area rank highly in crime statistics, no area of the state is immune to the devastating impact of substance abuse. Figures released in June showed drug-related offences rose by 15 per cent across the Gippsland region in the state’s south. Looking closely, the Latrobe area has the second highest crime rate in Victoria, ranked only behind Melbourne.
Two hours’ drive south of Melbourne lies the small town of Loch, population 967.
Encircled by rolling green hills, the picturesque location is best known for its antique stores and gourmet produce direct from local farms. It’s a world away from the bustling streets of a city so it comes as no surprise the phrase ‘drug rehabilitation centre’ evoked anxiety amongst residents. In December 2015, the community was unexpectedly thrust into the spotlight when a private company proposed the defunct local hospital be renovated into a 20 bed, in-patient ‘detoxification and rehabilitation’ facility.
Approved by the South Gippsland Shire Council, Cr Mohya Davies told media at the time she believed the town was “the ideal place for these people [drug and alcohol addicts] to help them get back on track”.
“This will be an opportunity for Loch. It will bring jobs and economic activity for the town,” she said.
It was hoped the centre would provide much needed services to local residents who, like Rob Van Rooy’s family, are disadvantaged by their rural location compared to those in metropolitan areas.
Similar to the ACSO proposal in Numurkah, Loch residents disagreed with council sentiment and submitted 34 applications against the plan to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT).
On a Facebook post published by local newspaper The Star, comments from Gippsland locals were overwhelmingly supportive of a service in the area, but objected to the location.
“I don’t think the location has been thought through with Loch’s best interests in mind,” one local resident wrote.
“I personally wouldn’t want such a ‘hospital’ around the corner from my home either. Maybe the next facility can be located beside some councillors’ residences?” another commented.
Surprisingly, the tribunal ruled in favour of residents and overrode the application. Although the social and economic impact of the facility was examined in detail by VCAT, their primary concern lay with the lack of detail provided by the company responsible, Australian Addiction Hospitals.
The findings delivered at a hearing in July this year were damning of the application, stating the court was ‘unable to reach the necessary level of confidence around the resolution of management issues that would persuade us to believe this proposal is acceptable’.
Australian Addiction Hospitals has since withdrawn any further proposal leaving the town be, but for sufferers of addiction, another rejection further diminishes hope and chance of a future where adequate support services are provided to all, irrespective of locality.
Both the State Member for Gippsland Darren Chester and Federal Minister for McMillian (South Gippsland) Russell Broadbent declined to comment to City Journal.
NOT A MOMENT TOO SOON
“Are you okay?,” Rob asked his son during his first week at rehab in Geelong.
“For the first time in a long time people just want to be around me because of me, they don’t want anything from me,” Jack replied.
In the past, most of Jack’s relationships had been based on drugs; who he was getting drugs off, who was getting drugs off him and who he owed money to. Jack describes it as a weight lifted off his shoulders.
He’s been home from residential rehab since February. Last month, he started a new job and reconnecting with family.
“He does say that he feels happier, he’s enjoying his work, life is sort of going along at the moment.”
Unfortunately, it’s not the reality for every family battling drug addiction. Many face an uncertain future, unable to access support services.
“Jack seems to be back on track, but that’s only us. There are just so many people out there.”
For Andrew Hick, end of financial year is always a difficult time at Odyssey House. Each year the staff and residents wait patiently until the next round of government funding for the centre is approved but there is no certainty.
“It puts a lot of pressure on our employees who have mortgages and children,” he says.
“We can actually see it in the completion rates here, they start to diminish too.”
As Odyssey grapples with the future of their centre, proposals for new facilities are struggling to get off the ground.
The future of ACSO’s proposal for residential drug rehab in Numurkah now lies with VCAT, with the application filed for a hearing next year.
Drug addiction is a reality Briggs has seen first hand in Shepparton.
“You’d hope that future generations who live there and stay there can shift the paradigm and change what the town is about just for itself, just for the environment.”
“The city doesn’t see it,” he says.
“The kid who grew up there really does.”
*Not real name