(CNN) — Officer Ryan Holets says he simply did the right thing when he came across a pregnant woman about to shoot up heroin behind a convenience store. Instead of taking her to jail, he decided to adopt her baby.
The Albuquerque, New Mexico, police officer was lauded on one of the biggest stages Tuesday, with President Donald Trump recognizing him during his State of the Union address and saying he and his wife, Rebecca, “embody the goodness of our nation.”
“Last year, Ryan was on duty when he saw a pregnant, homeless woman preparing to inject heroin,” Trump told the nation. “When Ryan told her she was going to harm her unborn child, she began to weep. She told him she didn’t know where to turn, but badly wanted a safe home for her baby.
“In that moment, Ryan said he felt God speak to him: ‘You will do it — because you can.’ He heard those words,'” Trump said. “He went home to tell his wife Rebecca. In an instant, she agreed to adopt. The Holets named their new daughter Hope.”
Holets was one of 15 special guests invited by first lady Melania Trump to attend the address. He sat to her left in his dress blues along with his wife, who held 3-month-old Hope, swaddled in a pink blanket.
The entire chamber stood and gave the young family a standing ovation. The couple rose, too, nodding and waving to the crowd.
During his address, Trump also spoke of the administration’s ongoing efforts to curb the growing epidemic, including declaring it a public health emergency.
“Never before has it been like it is now,” Trump said. “It is terrible. We have to do something about it.”
Trump told the chamber that in 2016 alone, 64,000 Americans died of drug overdoses — what he said amounted to 174 deaths every day. Since 2000, the epidemic has killed more than 500,000 Americans — and the administration has said opioid abuse remains one of its highest domestic priorities.
“We must get much tough on drug dealers and pushers if we are going to succeed in stopping this scourge,” he said. “My administration is committed to fighting the drug epidemic and helping get treatment for those in need, for those who’ve been so terribly hurt. The struggle will be long and it will be difficult — but, as Americans always do, in the end, we will succeed. We will prevail.”
The crisis is even affecting the nation’s most vulnerable: A baby suffering from opioid withdrawal is born every 25 minutes in the United States, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, with the babies facing developmental issues.
Opioid commission member: Congress turned our work into a ‘sham’
Trump formed a bipartisan opioid commission in March to study the problem, and it came up with a list of 56 recommendations, including setting up nationwide drug courts to help place substance abusers into treatment rather than sending them into the prison system.
But former Democratic Rep. Patrick Kennedy, one of six members of the bipartisan commission, recently told CNN that the Republican-led Congress had turned its work into a “charade” and a “sham.” He blasted Trump for not setting aside new money to tackle the crisis and took sharp aim at Congress for recent tax cuts, saying the country “would lose more money in a year than we could spend in a decade to solve this crisis.”
“This and the administration’s other efforts to address the epidemic are tantamount to reshuffling chairs on the Titanic,” Kennedy said. “The emergency declaration has accomplished little, because there’s no funding behind it. You can’t expect to stem the tide of a public health crisis that is claiming over 64,000 lives per year without putting your money where your mouth is.”
The Drug Policy Alliance, an organization that advocates to end the war on drugs, criticized Trump’s State of the Union address, saying his administration has only added to the problem by criminalizing those in the throes of addiction rather than trying to help them with evidence-based treatment programs.
“Rather than helping people at risk of overdose and their families, Trump’s agenda seems to have been to stoke fear, spread disinformation and further stigmatize entire populations — whether they be immigrants or people who use drugs,” said Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.
Gary Mendell, the founder and CEO of Shatterproof, a nonprofit organization that works to end the stigma of addiction, applauded Trump for inviting Holets to the speech, but he criticized the President not acting “on the strong recommendations sent to him by the President’s commission.”
“I hope that after tonight’s speech, the President and his administration will start taking specific, meaningful action that will save lives,” Mendell said.
Others on the front lines have said it’s difficult to tell what, if any, difference the public health emergency declaration has made. “I have not seen any effect of the state of emergency in any way,” said Dr. Leana Wen, the health commissioner for the city of Baltimore. She has testified twice on Capitol Hill for the need for funding.
“If this were a true state of emergency,” she told CNN, “there would be immediate relief of resources that would directly target the front lines.”
The White House has touted an array of measures put into place, including a law signed this month that gives US Customs and Border Protection additional screening devices to better detect illicit drugs such as fentanyl that are being smuggled across the border.
Change starts at the grassroots level
The administration also has said change must also begin among regular Americans, such as Holets.
Holets had responded to a possible theft at a convenience store September 23. It turned out to be a false report, but as he left the store, he noticed what appeared to be a man and woman shooting up heroin in broad daylight. Holets turned on his body camera and approached the couple.
The woman was in the middle of injecting a needle into her companion’s arm. Then he noticed that she was pregnant.
Crystal Champ, 35, looks slightly dazed and agitated in the body camera footage as Holets scolds her. She told the officer that she was almost eight months’ pregnant and addicted.
“You’re going to kill your baby,” Holets is heard saying on the footage. “Why do you have to be doing that stuff? It’s going to ruin your baby.”
In the video, Champ breaks down in tears. She told CNN that the officer’s words cut deeply.
“I was like, ‘how dare you judge me. You have no idea how hard this is,’ ” she said. “I know what a horrible person I am and what a horrible situation I’m in.”
Holets says a voice told him to offer to adopt the child, and that’s what he did. He showed Champ a picture of his family: his wife, Rebecca, and four young children.
“I’ve gotten so tired of seeing so many situations where I want to help but can’t,” Holets said. “And in that moment, I realized I had a chance to help, and to heck with the risks.”
Champ and the baby’s father, Tom Key, agreed to have the Holets family adopt the baby. Hope was born October 12. The biological mother and father entered a rehabilitation center in Florida after an outpouring of support.
Three-month-old Hope was cradled in the arms of her adoptive mother throughout Trump’s address. The newborn has begun adjusting to life after the painful process of withdrawal in the weeks after birth and enduring methadone treatment while detoxing. Her parents say the threat of developmental issues is real, but that won’t stop them from loving her.
“We never dreamed this would have happened,” Holets said of being honored by the President. “It’s a huge responsibility and honor to be here.”
He said the message to take away from their story is that “all life is valuable.”
“Everybody is redeemable,” he said. “For the people out there struggling with addiction, maybe women who are pregnant and struggling with addiction, don’t give up. Keep trying. There’s hope.”