Suisman Shapiro lawyers have personal, professional reasons to help Community Speaks Out fight opioid crisis

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Jimmy Blanchard, who died of a heroin overdose in 2013 at age 40, is pictured here in 2009 with his daughter Rylee. (Courtesy of the Suisman Shapiro law firm)

New London - The Suisman Shapiro law firm has been working with Community Speaks Out for months as the grass-roots group that formed in response to the opioid crisis pursues nonprofit status, but Suisman attorney Michael A. Blanchard only recently met the founding members when he sat in for a colleague during a promotional video shoot.

The filming session with Joe and Tammy de la Cruz and Lisa Cote Johns was "serendipitous," Blanchard said in an interview this week, because, like them, his family has suffered the fallout from addiction.

His brother, Jimmy Blanchard, died of a heroin overdose on April 24, 2013, having just been released from the Stonington Institute treatment center to a sober house in New London. He was a 40-year-old father of two.

Blanchard has never told his brother's story publicly, but he reconsidered after speaking with the de la Cruzes, who were mobilized to action by their son Joey Gingerella's battle with prescription drugs, and with Johns, whose son Christopher died of a heroin overdose in October 2014, also in a sober house in New London.

Community Speaks Out holds monthly support group meetings, presents information about the epidemic at schools and other forums and works hands-on with addicts and their families to find treatment programs.

After months of pro-bono effort by the law firm's attorney Eric Callahan, their application for 501(c)(3) nonprofit status is expected to be filed on Monday.

"I really think their true strength is spreading the word," Blanchard said. "If we don't talk about it, about what happened to us, then shame on us."

The group's motto is, "If we don't speak about addiction, no one will hear and nothing will change."

Blanchard checked with his 81-year-old father, Raymond Blanchard of Colchester, who previously had asked him not to go public with the family's story.

This week, he said, his father told him "If it can save one person, go ahead."

Brother struggled with addiction

A respected attorney who is not afraid to take his clients' cases to trial, Blanchard said he knows that if he looked at his brother's case through a professional lens, he would not feel guilty about his death.

Blanchard said he had a "different" kind of relationship with Jimmy, who was 15 years younger.

The youngest of the three Blanchard boys, Jimmy was a National Honor Society student at Griswold High School who "lost his way" in college, Blanchard said. After a car accident, he started using Percocet and Vicodin for back pain.

Blanchard doesn't know exactly when his brother started using heroin, but said he did have periods of sobriety.

Jimmy Blanchard lived in North Carolina and Reno, Nev., and had two daughters, Blanchard said. He started using and selling marijuana and acquired a criminal record, which made it hard for him to find a job.

In 2010, Jimmy Blanchard moved back in with his parents to help care for his mother, Carol Blanchard, who was suffering from dementia. The parents, with Jimmy, moved from South Carolina to Colchester, and eventually the family made the decision to move Carol to the Apple Rehabilitation center there.

"He saw her every day," Blanchard said. "He saw her slipping away."

Looking back, Blanchard said he realizes he missed the signs when his brother was using heroin, like when Jimmy would wear a long-sleeve shirt to a summer party.

Eventually, though, Blanchard confronted him in the parking lot of the complex where Jimmy lived with his father. Jimmy, returning home after working the second shift at Radio Shack, agreed to go to Stonington Institute.

"He was a bright kid and knew he needed it," Blanchard said. "He went the next day."

After two weeks, Jimmy called Blanchard to thank him for helping him get into rehab. After a month, he was released to a sober home, where he was allowed to go out to work while continuing with his recovery.

Blanchard said his father called him on April 24, 2013, excited because Jimmy could now have visitors.

Later the same day, the father called Blanchard, who was driving home from work, and said Jimmy was found unresponsive in the sober home bathroom and had been taken to Lawrence + Memorial Hospital, and that he was dead.

"They told us they found him in the bathroom with two bags and a needle in his arm," Blanchard said. "They put these sober houses in these urban areas, and the drug dealers know where they are."

Carol Blanchard died a year later. Because of her dementia, Blanchard said, she never knew about the death of her youngest son.

Blanchard said the Community Speaks Out members, hearing his story, invited him to the support group meeting.

"I think what they're doing is really noble," Blanchard said.

Lawyer "hooked" to group's message

Suisman attorney Matthew E. Auger knocked on the wooden conference room table at the downtown New London firm this week as he reflected during an interview on how fortunate his family has been to avoid substance abuse problems.

Despite that, Auger said he regularly has attended Community Speaks Out's monthly family support group meetings.

"When I started this, it was almost an impulse, an emotional reaction," Auger said.

When he first heard Joe de la Cruz speaking about his experience, Auger was in the middle of a trial in the medical malpractice case of Jill Procaccini, who died in 2008 at age 32 of a methadone overdose six hours after she had been treated and released from the emergency room at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital.

Auger represented Procaccini's survivors, winning a $512,000 jury award against the hospital's emergency room physicians group. The verdict is under appeal.

Auger contends the doctors treated his client poorly because she was an addict and that she should have been admitted to the hospital for at least 24 hours.

Though the case involved a claim that the doctors failed to consider the amount of time it takes for methadone to metabolize, Auger said at the trial he subtly tried to get the jury to ask themselves, "Why did they treat her the way they did?"

Auger is now hooked, in a good way, on the Community Speaks Out meetings and mission.

"I'm not a religious person" he said. "I think that's the closest I've ever gotten to church is going to Joey and Tammy's monthly meetings."

It was Auger who originally made the connection with Joe de la Cruz and offered the firm's complimentary services for the application for nonprofit status. The Community Speaks Out board of directors had its first meeting at the law firm.

Both Auger and Joe de la Cruz, who is a Groton town councilor and a candidate for state representative, said they wanted to make it clear that the law firm's pro-bono assistance to Community Speaks Out is unrelated to the firm's representation of the Town of Groton.

"They didn't jump on board because I'm a town councilor," Joe de la Cruz said in a phone interview. "They jumped on board out of pure compassion."

"Matt Auger attended meetings for five months to see what was going on and was floored by the impact we have on the community," Joe de la Cruz said. "He was the first member of the community that isn't dealing with it that showed up at our meetings."

Joe de la Cruz is thrilled the group's message is spreading to those who are not directly affected by the crisis.

He said he was astounded when he began telling people of his own family's struggle and they admitted there were addiction problems in their family, too.

"That's really what's making this disease as strong as it is, that people can't talk about it," Joe de la Cruz said.

He said his father-in-law reminded him that in the past, someone in the neighborhood who had cancer would just say they were "sick" because of the stigma attached to that disease.

"Then that went away when everybody said, 'That could happen to me,'" he said.

Tammy de la Cruz, the president of Community Speaks Out, said she met with another attorney about applying for nonprofit status and was discouraged because she didn't understand "the legal mumbo jumbo" she was hearing.

"I needed somebody to talk to me like I'm not a lawyer," she said.

Callahan has been able to guide and advise the group while preparing its application, she said.

"There's a lot to it," Tammy de la Cruz said. "You have to be able to look at what your vision is for the future and come up with the best plan you can."

k.florin@theday.com

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