Behind the Decision to Post That Infamous Facebook Photo of the Opioid Epidemic at Its Worst

Mayor Ryan Stovall has no regrets.
by | July 11, 2017
The East Liverpool Police Department shared this photo on Facebook. (AP/East Liverpool Police Department)

Last year, the township of East Liverpool, Ohio, shocked the nation when its local officials posted photos on Facebook. They showed a grandmother and her boyfriend, passed out from heroin overdoses, while a 4-year-old looked on from the backseat of their SUV.

“We feel we need to be a voice for the children caught up in this horrible mess,” the city wrote on Facebook in defense of their decision. “This child can't speak for himself, but we are hopeful his story can convince another user to think twice about injecting this poison while having a child in their custody.”

Police used naloxone, a drug used to reverse the fatal effects of opioid overdoses, to revive the adults and called the local child services agency to take custody of the child. A month later, The Washington Post reported similar incidents in Alabama, Indiana, Massachusetts and Michigan. National data show that the number of children placed in foster care is rising, and in many states, the most common reason for a child’s removal is their parents’ use of drugs or alcohol.

Governing recently explored how the opioid crisis is impacting child welfare agencies across the country. In the process of reporting that story, Governing spoke with East Liverpool Mayor Ryan Stovall -- who is also a part-time police officer -- about the infamous Facebook post and why they decided to post it.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Had those sorts of incidents been happening a lot? 

We’ve had a health epidemic here -- not only in East Liverpool but in Ohio.

And the incidents specifically involve parents overdosing with children present? 

Yes, there’s been plenty. I’ve responded myself as an officer to overdoses where children have been present, and we had to call in child services.

When these drug addicts need their fix, they need it. They don’t care who’s around. It’s not that they love their kids any less; it’s just that they have to have their fix.

How do you make a decision to post public photos like that? 

The photos were taken for evidence for a court case. Between myself, my safety service director, the assistant law director and the police chief, we talked. It wasn’t an easy decision to make, but we decided to hit things head on.

A lot of cities and towns want to keep their heads in the sand. We wanted to show this is happening here. This is what’s going on in our community. We took some heat for that, and we knew we would, but the point is we got people talking, we had state officials here that otherwise would not have come here. We got the kid out of the situation that he never should have been put in in the first place.

It always gets brought up. With social media nowadays, it’s obviously a recorded event that’s out there. People say, “in 20 years, if this kid looks up his name, it’s going to show this bad stuff that happened and it’s going to make him depressed.” I tend to look at it as the opposite. He may very well look it up in 20 years, but he’s going to say, “this was when somebody said enough was enough and cared enough to get me out of that situation.”