Growing up in a Cecil County trailer park, Ray Lynn has been shaped by tragedy.
Lynn went from seeing drug addiction firsthand in his neighborhood as a child to tackling the problem as a police officer decades later.
“I can name you friends that are dead because of it," he said.
Lynn, 44, also saw his brother and sister burn to death in a house fire when he was 19, he said. It’s what led him to become a volunteer firefighter and, later, a Maryland State Police trooper.
So when county leaders picked Lynn to become the county’s Opioid Strategy Coordinator in December 2016, he hoped his personal and professional experience would help him look at opioid overdoses in a new light, knowing what his friends and neighbors have been through.
In 2017, his first year, fatal opioid overdoses in the county skyrocketed.
By year’s end, 89 people succumbed to fatal opioid-related overdoses, more than twice the previous year’s total.
It was that August when Lynn and school officials noticed a startling statistic: 33 children had been orphaned in just that month after at least one parent died from a drug overdose.
“It was a surprise to everyone. I guess no one had ever put two and two together and realized the severity of the issue,” Lynn said. “We had a classroom and a half of children, in one month, [who] lost a parent.”
In the years since, Lynn and other county officials have identified “well over” 100 children who have been orphaned by the opioid epidemic. He said he’s already identified 50 children in 2019.
For the past two years Lynn has been speaking to local, state and federal officials about the growing problem of the children left behind by the opioid crisis.
Lynn tears up talking about his dead siblings. His experience with deaths in his family, still raw, helps fuel his desire to take on the root of so much of Cecil County’s misery.
“I guess when you have something like that happen right off the bat, it changes your outlook on everything,” he said.
Cecil County’s lost opportunities
In northeastern Maryland, Cecil County is a largely rural county of about 100,000 people. Many of the businesses are clustered on Route 40, which leads into Delaware and nearby Newark. Venturing a mile or two outward reveals suburban-style homes with acres separating neighbors.
To Lynn, it’s somewhat of a shell of its former self.
Decades ago, residents commuted to Chrysler and General Motors plants in Delaware or worked at the many local banks in the area.
But as gas prices rose in the mid-2000s, people weren’t buying as many Chrysler Aspen and Dodge Durango SUVs produced in Newark. Chrysler announced in 2007 that it would close the plant. General Motors closed its Newport, Delaware, automotive plant in 2009.
“In the last 10-15 years, all of that is gone,” Lynn said. “There is no more jobs like that. You’ve got to have a master’s degree to darn near get a job somewhere and I think that has negatively affected this county.”
Lynn is worried that despair might be pushing recent high school graduates toward hard drugs; he said he’s seeing a growing trend of young adults who have no criminal history or noted past with drug abuse overdosing on methamphetamines and opioids, sometimes combined.
County officials say they’re tackling what they call a generational issue with trauma. The children orphaned by opioids are another symptom.
Officials knew that community pain — what health professionals call trauma-informed care — had to be at the heart of Cecil County’s approach to overdoses.
A new approach
The focus on trauma has filtered throughout Cecil County’s emergency and social services.
Lynn combs through police reports and emergency calls to find every child affected by their parent’s drug use to make sure they’re connected with counselors or mental health professionals. Those kids might have watched paramedics revive an overdosed relative. He and others help the staff at after-school programs understand that a child’s meltdown might have more to do with what happened at home.
“It forced us to, I think, sort of examine things very differently," said David Trolio, the county’s deputy director of emergency services.
“We sort of built from the health department the four pillars of enforcement, treatment, recovery and prevention to deal with this,” he said. “And this sort of creates a fifth prong, which would be support services.”
To pay for the overhaul, the county applied for a federal grant for young crime victims, intended to address children whose parents or guardians have overdosed.
The three-year $639,000 grant has allowed the county to enter a public-private partnership with Bodhi, a private counseling service in North East offering therapy for children and adults who have been exposed to overdoses.
The scope of the program is expansive. County officials wrote in a narrative that the partnership will “provide direct trauma therapy services to young crime victims in Cecil County at no cost to the family."
In addition, the county also provides training on how to identify and handle a child in trauma to various agencies and professions, including health care workers, public safety personnel, educators and community service providers.
“The likelihood for front line personnel to encounter trauma means that understanding how to identify and connect to services is critical,” county officials wrote.
From April through September, 76 children and 41 adults have been referred to Bodhi for services. And Bodhi has provided 55 hours of training and assistance to county agencies.
Jesse Fairchild, the practice owner and clinical psychotherapist at Bodhi, said the center has seen clients as young as 3 years old, who will need a network of support to overcome their trauma.
“If you look at the people who have successfully navigated adverse childhood experiences, something was in place. There was some community support, some mentorship, something that helped them through that,” she said.
The county is teaching first responders, teachers and others in the community how to manage the victim’s trauma, but also their own.
As of October, Lynn said, there had been more than 500 overdoses, fatal and nonfatal, in the county in 2019 alone.
Lynn said he’s worried about a new crop of high school graduates becoming addicted to drugs like methamphetamines and heroin. He said he’s seeing a growing number of young adults who’d never had any previous contact with law enforcement overdosing on drugs.
He warns that the issue of orphaned children is not confined to Cecil County, as more than 2,000 people in the state die each year from drug or alcohol use.
“A lot of this is generational, second or third generation,” he said. “If we can break that link, then perhaps we can make a change. We’re a generation away from knowing if that is going to happen, though.”