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Claire Swauger: A Passion and a Plan to Combat Opioids

While earning her law degree, Claire Swauger ’18 discovered her passion — and came up with a plan — to help combat Appalachia’s opioid epidemic.

WVU Law Claire Swauger '18

Swauger graduated from WVU Law in May 2018, earning a J.D. with a concentration in energy and sustainable development law. As a student looking for practical work experience, Swauger joined WVU’s Land Use andSustainable Development (LUSD) Law Clinic. Part of her job included gathering public comments on projects for the Clinic’s clients throughout the Mountain State.

That work sparked Swauger’s inspiration to help people in West Virginia communities confronted by the opioid epidemic.

“Talking to real West Virginians motivated me to use my legal skills to improve their communities,” she said. “Learning how to become a tool to help small towns achieve their goals was the greatest honor and privilege of my law school experience.”

Students and staff attorneys in the LUSD Law Clinic work pro bono with local governments, landowners and non-profit organizations to develop tailored land conservation and community development strategies.

West Virginia’s small towns can’t plan for economic development if they don’t plan for the opioid crisis and the costs associated with it, according the Swauger.

“New corporations and pipeline projects are moving into certain areas of West Virginia, creating job opportunities. But if they can’t hire local workers who are drug free, residents in those areas will not see the benefits of the economic development,” Swauger explained. “Local governments need increased community services and treatment options to combat addiction, but those come with added expenses.”

Much of the LUSD Law Clinic’s work involves developing comprehensive plans, which serve as a blueprint for local governments to a community’s future. Swauger and Jared Anderson, a land use attorney with the Clinic, developed an innovative framework to comprehensive plans to help communities deal with opioids.

The framework Swauger and Anderson designed addresses improving drug education for younger children; providing digital treatment and education options for isolated communities; addressing underlying social issues like homelessness that contribute to addiction; and using programs like the drug court system to alleviate pressure on the justice system.  

Swauger and Anderson also focused on potential strategies to get stakeholders involved and to secure funding for community projects. Their opioid-fighting framework is being used in the proposed comprehensive plan for Mercer County in the southeastern corner of the state.

“Being in the LUSD Law Clinic was one of the most fundamentally important and beneficial aspects of my legal education,” said Swauger. “It allowed me to help West Virginians that are dedicated to making a difference in their hometowns, and I did influential legal work that created a base for others to build upon in the future. We are on the forefront of this type of land use planning.”

WVU Law Swauger twins

Swauger, who grew up in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, in the Laurel Highlands east of Pittsburgh, has a compelling personal reason to fight opioids. She became invested in the addiction epidemic long before law school and land use issues when both of her sisters were affected by opioids in different ways.

Sydney, Swauger’s identical twin, became addicted to opioids when she was 11 years old after a man approached her at a park in Greensburg.

“He had a sophisticated plan of giving really young children, primarily girls, opioids to make them returning customers and also so he could eventually get them into sex trafficking,” she said.

As a result, Sydney struggled with addiction throughout her life. She has been clean for about four years and is now a high-achieving student at Temple University. In their spare time, the Swauger twins conduct interventions at no cost, helping others who are addicted seek treatment, and offer them support as they commit to sobriety.

WVU Law Claire Swauger '18 and  her sisters

Long after Sydney was approached in the park, Swauger’s older sister, Hillary, became physically dependent on her prescribed opioids following back surgery. When it came time to stop taking her medication, Hillary struggled with the transition even though she never abused the prescription.

“I’ve seen the over-prescription of opioids by doctors and the illicit use of opioids and how both can impair people’s lives and contribute to instability,” said Swauger.

Now, Swauger plans to combine her law school background and personal experiences to continue helping people in Appalachia affected by the opioid epidemic.

She and Sydney hope to eventually open their own addiction clinic and policy center, which would implement evidence-based treatment and make recommendations to local governments as they address the opioid epidemic in their individual communities.

In the meantime, while her sister pursues postgraduate studies, Swauger is putting her concentration in energy law to good use by teaching a class on natural resource policy and law at her undergraduate alma mater, Chatham University, in fall 2018.

Swauger is also keeping an eye on the developing opioid response throughout the country. Using the time while her sister finishes school, Swauger will continue to learn about the existing legal and social framework in order to make their dream of an opioid clinic and policy center a reality.

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