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Madison County Indiana

This Rust Belt county wants to bounce back, but the opioid crisis stands in its way


Keith Gaskill grew up in Madison County, Indiana, a community just 40 miles North of Indianapolis that is a picture-perfect image of America's Rust Belt.

He is now an investigator for the county's drug task force, and as he drives around pointing out empty fields, crumbling factories and boarded up buildings that used to show a vibrant, happy community, he tells stories of the drug trafficking and abuse that he has witnessed since the jobs left and the opioid epidemic took over.

Madison County, Indiana
A boarded up and abandoned building in Madison County, Indiana.

"It’s not hard to imagine 30 years ago, 40 years ago all these people working over here at the local factory raising their families. Now look at it. You can get any flavor of dope that you want in this neighborhood," said Gaskill.

Madison County, Indiana
Neighborhood in Madison County, Indiana.

With a fatal drug overdose rate of 30.9 per 100,000 people in 2017, the county has one of the highest rates in the state, and is higher than the average rate in 40 other states.

"There are a lot of reasons why a guy or a girl gets involved in drugs or drug trafficking, but certainly one of the considerations is financial needs.” said Gaskill.

The number of deaths from opioid pain pills in the county are less than half of what they were in 2011, but total drug overdoses have not decreased by much as drug abusers transition from pills to cheaper alternatives like heroin, where the number of overdose deaths quadrupled from 2011 to 2015 in Indiana.

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“The next wave is crystal meth, and I’m not saying it’s replacing heroin, but man it’s everywhere now. It’s a lot cheaper a product," Gaskill said.

But it was not always this way. In the 1970s, General Motors (GM) employed over 20,000 people in Madison County, and by 2006 there were less than 3,000 employed. Today, there are zero.

“When I was little, of course, everybody worked at GM. That’s going to be the number one thing you hear all the time. But GM isn't here any longer," said Andrea Clapp, lifelong resident of Madison County.

Gaskill left Madison County after high school to join the military, but both of his parents had worked at General Motors for over 30 years. When he moved back to the area in 1999, he said it was not just the loss of General Motors that had hurt the local economy.

"Smaller places that built something specifically and existed specifically because General Motors was here, and those were the first things I noticed going," said Gaskill. “Here’s what’s left of Nicholson File. Just a file of Rubble, and all that inside that fence used to be a working factory that existed basically because of all these other GM factories."

Madison County Indiana

Anderson, the largest city in the county and where almost half the county's population lives, is now a shell of what it used to be. Businesses are closed and boarded up, and even buildings that used to host popular chains like Dunkin Donuts are no longer used.

“When I was little, you come downtown there was more, there was tons of traffic, there were more shops down here and then of course over the years that’s kind of gone away,” Clapp said.

And the numbers match the picture. Madison County’s poverty rate is 17.5 percent, and the median household income is $45,000, which is $14,000 less than the national median.

Some small businesses like Allan’s Jewelry and Loan have survived, but owner Jerry Rubenstein said he knows much of the community has suffered.

“GM has been gone for so long and it’s taking a lot of time to get decent businesses back here that pay a wage that people could live with," Rubenstein said.

Brayton Wright is a recovering addict staying at a treatment center in Madison County called the House of Hope, and at 24-years-old this is the only way of life he has known in this community as some of his friends and family also battle addiction.

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"My friend group gravitated toward rowdy I guess, kind of getting in trouble. Once we got older it started becoming drugs and then heroin and it just took over like everybody," said Wright.

He said his addiction started when he abused pain pills he was prescribed as a teenager, but like others, his addiction soon progressed to heroin and meth.

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"I just started shooting heroin, and that’s definitely the worst drug that I’ve done because you get sick if you don’t do it so it’s like you’ve got to. It’s kind of a no way out sort of thing," said Wright.

Wright was sober for two years, but ended up relapsing and violating his probation. He would have been sent back to jail, but he opted to go to a treatment center in Madison County called the House of Hope.

He is now close to completing his 90-day program and hasn’t decided what he wants to do when he leaves, though the thought of leaving does worry him.

“By the time people stay clean for a while the next thing you know they’re getting high again, so it’s just really hard keeping up with that," said Wright.

But one thing that is obvious when talking to the people in this community is their positivity and hope that things will change for the better.

“I see a lot of young people anywhere from 20- 40 years old and they are trying to revitalize downtown. It’s really a neat thing to see," Clapp said.

Gaskill said manufacturers and other businesses have started to come back to the community, just like he did to raise his kids.

"We’ve been talking about a lot of the bad, the drugs and all that, but I wanted my children to be raised in that same environment. That middle-America, lets apply some common sense to things background that I had when I grew up because it served me well," Gaskill said.

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