FARMINGTON — Oxford County Deputy Matt Baker arrived home from patrol last Feb. 26 late, around 2:30 a.m.

He knew that earlier that night there’d been a dispute between his 23-year-old daughter and her boyfriend who, along with their infant child, lived with Baker and his wife. But when he got home, the house was quiet.

The quiet and the fact the bathroom door was shut made him suspicious, so he asked his daughter’s boyfriend to break open the door to check on her.

“My daughter was slumped over on the toilet. Her face (was) all blue,” Baker said. “I had felt her heart beat once.”

“Basically, my daughter died while I was doing CPR on her.”

Baker’s story of his daughter’s overdose gave a human face to the scope of heroin’s close-to-home effects at a forum on Maine’s heroin and opiate crisis Wednesday night at the University of Maine at Farmington.

Baker was joined on the panel by Farmington police Chief Jack Peck, Franklin County District Attorney Andrew Robinson and psychiatrist Art Dingley to discuss the heroin and opiate problem in Maine, especially rural areas such as Franklin County.

Peck, a Farmington native, has worked in law enforcement in the area for the last 27 years, including as an undercover agent for the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency. But even as an undercover drug agent in the mid-1990s, buying every drug available from crack cocaine to LSD, Peck said he was never in a situation where he could obtain heroin.

“It was here, but it was kind of an underground thing. … (Now) it’s really exploded,” Peck said. “It’s a disease and a virus here in our community.”

In the last few years, Peck said, he has seen an alarming rise in heroin and opiate deaths and crimes. He cited several cases, including the near overdose death of a 22-year-old man two weeks ago behind the Franklin County courthouse.

Last month, the Farmington Police Department, in conjunction with the Wilton Police Department, announced a new drug program, Operation HOPE (Heroin-Opiate Prevention Effort), aimed at getting drug users into treatment instead of jail by offering amnesty from charges if addicts contact the departments for help. The program began Monday and is still in its infancy in terms of how the logistics and treatment will pan out, but Peck is hopeful.

“We want to help them. We don’t want to be a barrier,” Peck said. “We can’t arrest our way out of this problem.”

About half of the 22 inmates at the Franklin County Jail are involved in some type of drug protocol, Sheriff Scott Nichols said in a phone interview Thursday. After Operation HOPE was announced, Nichols expressed interest in joining the program, and now addicts also may reach out to the sheriff’s department to be referred to treatment.

The legal conflict of whether to sentence drug offenders or to treat them posed a clash of conscience for Robinson, the district attorney for Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties.

Robinson said it is undeniable “how pervasive (heroin) is in our community.” But because the heroin problem has become so widespread, Robinson said, it’s creating myriad prosecution problems.

When a person is arrested for possession of heroin or an opiate drug, Robinson said he knows what to do with that person.

“We know what to do with that case. That case is about treatment,” he said. “But what do you do with the middle ground?”

However, when a heroin addict commits a crime such as burglarizing a home or dealing to fund his or her addiction, a victim is created, and it becomes hard to prosecute effectively.

Robinson said it is hard to tell the victim of crime that the guilty person is not going to be sent to jail, but rather to treatment in order to “break the cycle.”

Despite it being hard to replicate in a prosecution model, Robinson said that any hope of correcting the state’s heroin epidemic must be rooted in treatment. He noted, however, that there are just not enough resources available to fund treatment.

Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, who attended the forum, said he is among a group of state legislators who intend to introduce a bill that would expand MaineCare coverage for addicts who want to get treatment but are not insured.

Dingley, a local psychiatrist at Evergreen Behavioral Services, referred to several treatment models, some of which he thinks are more successful than others, but their effectiveness depends on the type of person suffering from addiction.

“The problem we have with a lot of treatment models is that if you mess up, you’re done,” Dingley said.

According to Dingley, for any treatment model to be successful, it has to be recovery-based, not abstinence-based, because an addict is likely to relapse several times before successfully becoming clean.

“Recovery from addiction is two steps forward and two steps back always,” Dingley said.

While the panelists did not have a clear-cut solution to solving the heroin epidemic, they did offer tips on how a community can address the problem. Peck urged that the first step must start with a conversation in school centered around “enforcement, treatment and education.”

Robinson stressed that in order for addicts to recover fully, they need to be accepted by the community.

“Who is the most likely to recover? The person who is connected with the community,” Robinson said.

Whether this means looking past a drug conviction when hiring someone for a job or just offering support, “you gotta be more accepting.”

About 50 people turned out for Tuesday’s two-hour forum, which was hosted by the Daily Bulldog and moderated by Farmington-based criminal defense attorney Woody Hanstein.

Lauren Abbate — 861-9252

[email protected]

Twitter: @Lauren_M_Abbate

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