A sign of hope in Will County’s heroin fight
By Susan DeMar Lafferty firstname.lastname@example.org February 7, 2014 10:58PM
Deaths due to heroin overdose dropped dramatically in Will County in 2013, but the drug remains a major problem that authorities continue to battle. | Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Updated: March 10, 2014 6:28AM
Deaths due to heroin overdose dropped dramatically last year in Will County, and some county officials credit a countywide educational effort on the dangers of the drug.
Since Coroner Patrick O’Neil began tracking heroin-related deaths in 1999, last year was the first time that their number dropped significantly — to 35 from 53 in 2012. O’Neil said there have been “subtle decreases” in the annual figure over the years, but heroin ODs rose overall from a low of five in 2000 to 30 in 2011 to the high of 53.
“I really don’t know what it (2013 decrease) means,” he said. “There’s no crystal ball in our business. We don’t know what that figure actually means.”
State’s Attorney James Glasgow is among those who believe the county’s educational campaign has played a major role, getting the message out to students, teachers and parents “who were pretty much in the dark about this epidemic.”
“In 2010 people scoffed when we said it was an epidemic. It was an epidemic that no one was talking about,” said John Roberts, a Homer Glen resident who lost his son, Billy, to a heroin overdose in 2009.
But Roberts got people talking about it when he created the Heroin Epidemic Relief Organization, or HERO, with another Homer Glen dad, Brian Kirk, whose son, Matthew, overdosed and died in 2009.
“I lost my son, but I have not lost hope. I know what will happen if we do nothing,” said Roberts, a retired Chicago police captain with more than 30 years in law enforcement. “We’re taking our kids back in a positive way.”
To promote awareness of the dangers of heroin and help families cope, HERO held its first rally in the summer of 2010 and attracted about 600 people, including local leaders such as Will County Executive Larry Walsh, Roberts said.
Recognizing that the greatest weapon in the battle against heroin is education, Walsh formed Heroin Education Leads to Preventative Solutions, or HELPS — a multifaceted approach that includes Roberts, Glasgow, O’Neil, the sheriff’s department, the health department, drug addiction experts and recovering addicts.
The recent death of Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman underscores that heroin use remains a persistent and growing problem in our society, and not just among those inhabiting its lower socioeconomic levels. The 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that the number of heroin users has risen steadily from about 373,000 in 2007 to roughly 669,000 in 2012.
Glasgow described Hoffman’s death as “staggering. He had everything going for him. It just shows you the power of the opiate.
“There is a lot of naivete about this drug,” he said. “We stress that once you are into this you cannot stop. The desire for heroin is something the average person cannot comprehend. It is brain-changing. Once it is in your body, you lose control.”
In the last few years, HERO and HELPS have become widely recognized in assisting the Will County community in fighting back against heroin use, Roberts said.
HERO conducts family support groups at 7 p.m. the second and fourth Tuesdays of every month at Lincoln Way Christian Church in New Lenox and a grief support group on the first Tuesday at Christian Life Church, 15609 W. 159th St., Homer Glen.
Initially, the two groups did public service announcements informing residents of the dangers of heroin. HERO and HELPS have held countless forums and seminars in schools and community centers to raise awareness of the physical, mental, social and legal ramifications of heroin use. They have held an annual community forum since 2012, attended by hundreds of people, with the next one slated for May 17 in Romeoville.
A partnership was formed in 2011 with the Robert Crown Center for Health Education to pilot a heroin prevention program at Joliet Township High School and Troy Middle School. Plans are to expand it to other Will County schools.
Roberts’ efforts have inspired a Southland family to create a group similar to HERO in Cook County.
“Wherever we can go to fight this epidemic, we will go,” Roberts said.
Legislation co-sponsored last year by state Rep. Natalie Manley, D-Joliet, created the Young Adult Heroin Use Task Force to address the growing use of heroin among high school students. She intends to introduce a bill in the current session of the Legislature to expand the task force to include students in sixth through eighth grades.
The dramatic decline in heroin-related deaths last year is “an incredibly positive reflection of what we have been doing,” Glasgow said. “This is not just an accident. Everyone has come together on this. But 35 deaths is still abominable.”
And while the latest statistics are encouraging, Will County officials are not celebrating.
“By no means is this an indication that we have beaten this issue,” Walsh said. “This just solidifies that we have made a difference. We will continue on with even more vigor in getting our message out. We are charged up.”
He hopes the state will see the value in such efforts and allocate more money for education and prevention rather than correction.
“We cannot arrest our way out of this problem. This is a health crisis,” Roberts said.
He said it will take a few years to see if 2013 is the start of a positive trend. A true measure of success would be to see steady declines not just in the number of deaths but also in those in treatment and those saved from overdosing, Roberts said.
Glasgow wants to bolster law enforcement efforts to track down heroin dealers and charge them with “drug-induced homicide.” He and others said emergency personnel need greater access to naloxone, commonly known as Narcan, a drug that reverses the effects of a heroin overdose.
“Our goal is to help prevent kids from using heroin. How we get there is the challenge,” Manley said. “Everyone recognizes this problem as a huge issue. It’s a different heroin than it was years ago. It’s lethal. It’s life-altering, and it’s so pervasive.”