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Heroin Message Not Getting Through

In 2010, WNIJ aired a series on the alarming number of heroin deaths in northern Illinois. The primary concern centered on teens and young adults. Despite efforts to curb use of the drug, the situation is getting worse in some areas. Observers say parental intervention is vital to stopping the spread of heroin. But getting the message through can be a struggle.

At the start of what looks to be a gorgeous late-spring day, Lea Minalga is getting ready to serve up a snow cone. Minalga is director of the outreach organization Hearts of Hope, which has a tent at Geneva’s Swedish Days festival. But the non-profit isn’t just here to make sure festival goers stay cool with a tasty treat. Members are trying to raise money so they can keep raising awareness about the topic at core of their mission: drug addiction.

Minalga founded Hearts of Hope in the late 90’s while trying to help her teenage son kick his heroin habit.

“I struggled to get him help. I threw him in treatment and assumed 28 days later he’d be better. Well, 25 treatment centers later, he’s doing well,” Minalga said.

Minalga became a drug counselor and through Hearts of Hope, she has connected with many other parents in the Kane County area who have dealt with the same problem. But Minalga says those involved with prevention efforts still need to get the attention of all parents in these parts, even those whose kids aren’t known users. The problem is, the alarm bell appears to be falling on deaf ears.  

“Parents are almost afraid or ashamed to even venture out to learn about this stuff. Maybe they don’t want people to think they’re coming to a drug forum because they might have a problem or they think it’s just not gonna happen to them,” Minalga said.

When it comes to getting affected parents to speak out, Minalga says they have families living in affluent areas not wanting neighbors and friends to find out what’s going on. In other cases, parents might be fearful of their son or daughter getting in trouble with the law. She says those factors get tangled up with outreach efforts.

In Kane County, 16 heroin-related deaths have been recorded this year. That puts the county on pace to triple the total from 2011. Authorities say far too often its teens and young adults ending up in the ER because of an overdose.

The resurgence of heroin use across the region has received plenty of media coverage in recent years. Kane County sheriff Pat Perez tried to alert the public last year with a series of seminars. But he says the campaign didn’t find a large audience.

“We put it in the newspaper. We had it out on radio. We did everything we could to reach out to parents. But we’re very disappointed in the dismal turnout, especially seeing the problem in this area,” Perez said.

Like Minalga, Perez says getting more parents to open their eyes could play a big role in reversing the trend. He says in many ways, the hands of law enforcement are tied because these teens travel to Chicago to buy the drug. That means there aren’t as many opportunities to carry out heroin busts locally. But if parents learn more at these meetings, they can spot the warning signs before it’s too late.

“You’re going there for the benefit of your children, to make sure that they don’t fall into this trap. If they are in this trap, [you can learn] how to counteract it and that there is help out in the community to help you get through it,” Perez said.

One mother trying to help her son stay clean is JoAnne, who did not want to use her last name. Her family has taken many steps to help her son, but JoAnne says she’s very guarded in telling friends about the situation. Part of it is to protect her son’s reputation. Be she says the stigma factor still gets in the way of spreading the word about what’s happening.

“I don’t think it will be something that we can conquer or really fight on a level battle ground until we speak out it openly,” JoAnne said.

JoAnne says Hearts of Hope is her saving grace right now because she can relate to the other parents at group discussions.

This isn’t just a problem for families in well-to-do communities. Winnebago County Coroner Sue Fiduccia says heroin deaths have risen sharply in her jurisdiction. She says the younger victims come from a wide range of backgrounds. Fiduccia says the Rockford-area has many great recovery programs where parents can seek help for their children. But she says even those who are fully-engaged can be blindsided.

“Sometimes, no matter how hard they try, they have no idea their child is on it,” Fiduccia said.  

Law enforcement officials and addiction specialists say heroin use can be very easy for kids to hide from their parents. That’s why some say the message needs to change: That heroin isn’t just a dirty street drug anymore, and that it’s much more accessible to young people who are snorting it or taking it in the form of a pill.

Kane County Sheriff Pat Perez says they’ll keep trying raise awareness. But he says it might take what he calls a “generational purge” to bring down the number of heroin deaths. He compares it to the gang violence his county experienced in the 90’s.

“The younger siblings of a lot of these people being murdered, or who were being sent off to prison for committing murders or for doing shootings, the younger siblings would see that [and say] that’s not what I want for myself,” Perez said.

But Perez still holds out hope that current prevention efforts will start to take hold.

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