Downers Grove residents Jim and Laurie have experienced first-hand the tragic, unforgiving effects of heroin, a drug they say will haunt them the rest of their lives.
Earlier this year, their son died of a heroin overdose at the age of 24. He battled his addiction for nearly four years, but was never able to recover, even after stints in rehab.
"This drug is powerful and it's deadly," Laurie said. "And for people who still don't believe it's in our community, we're here to tell them they're wrong."
Jim and Laurie's son was one of four Downers Grove residents who died this year from heroin overdose. These individuals represent a growing epidemic of heroin abuse not only in Downers Grove, but also in communities across the Chicago area, officials say.
On Thursday night, more than 100 parents and community members joined the Downers Grove Police Department and DuPage County law enforcement at Downers Grove North High School for the town's first-ever public forum on heroin.
Downers Grove Police Chief Robert Porter hosted a panel of guest speakers at the event, including DuPage County State's Attorney Robert Berlin, who discussed everything from statistics and law enforcement strategies to health effects and methods of prevention.
"Right now what we're seeing not only in Downers Grove but in communities across the state is an alarming increase in the use of heroin," Porter said. "We're seeing it not only in the crimes that are being committed by people trying to support their habit, but we're also seeing an increase in overdose deaths and medical situations where paramedics have actually had to save people who experience overdose."
With heroin use on the rise, law enforcement agencies have been forced to take a proactive approach, Porter said.
"(Heroin) is not unique to Downers Grove. This is happening in communities all across the state," he said. "Any community that thinks they're immune to the problem needs to take another look, because it's there and you need to address it head on, which is exactly what we're doing here in Downers Grove."
Heroin Use in Downers Grove
In Downers Grove, the battle against heroin is headed by Officers Scott Buzecky and Michael Eddy of the Downers Grove Police Department Tactical Unit.
After compiling the department's records on heroin-related incidents over the past two years, the officers found they are arresting the same amount of people, but have seen an increase in the number of medical calls and overdoses.
In 2011, there were 17 arrests for heroin possession, four medical cases and three overdose deaths, Buzecky said. This year, there have been 13 arrests for possession, five medical cases and four overdose deaths.
The data shows the problem is widespread.
"From what we're seeing in Downers Grove, the use of heroin is spread throughout the entire town," Buzecky said. "It's not just the north side or the south side, or one particular area of town."
Based on the department's investigations and medical cases, officers have determined most heroin users in Downers Grove are between the ages of 18 and 25, which is on par with the national average, Buzecky said. Users vary in gender, race, education background and income level.
Heroin retails for about $10 a bag, making it a cheap and accessible high.
"The drug is affordable for a first-time user or someone who is pressured by peers to use it," Buzecky said. "It's not until somebody starts using multiple bags—five, ten, fifteen bags a day—that it gets to where it's out of control and they're not able to afford it. It's at that point we see a lot of users living a life of crime to try to support their habit."
DuPage County Doing Its Part
While local law enforcement agencies are busy tracking heroin use in their communities, the issue is also being fought on a county level.
The DuPage Metropolitan Enforcement Group (DUMEG) was started in 1985 as a street-level narcotics unit to combat illicit drugs DuPage County. Today, the agency is equipped to handle a variety of investigations, including undercover drug purchases.
DUMEG Director Matt Gainer said many law enforcement agencies have identified the west side of Chicago as the "heroin capital of the world." Users travel Interstate 88, I-290 and Roosevelt Road, known as the "heroin highways," into the city to obtain the drug, he said.
"The proximity of DuPage County to the west side of Chicago is no doubt a contributing factor as to why DUMEG purchases and seizures have increased over the past two years," Gainer said.
In 2010, DUMEG seized 300 grams of heroin, a 650 percent increase from 2009, Gainer said. In 2011, the agency seized more than 650 grams, a 218 percent increase from the previous year.
The average seizure is about 15 grams, Gainer said.
DuPage County State's Attorney Robert Berlin said his office has seen a dramatic increase in heroin cases over the past few years, and has taken an aggressive approach to going after drug dealers and treating those with addiction.
Berlin said one of the county's primary strategies is the use of its drug court program, a sentencing alternative for non-violent drug offenders. The 24-month program provides both long-term residential and intensive outpatient treatment, as well as self-help meetings and other ancillary services.
Though many of the offenders who go through drug court experience relapse during the course of the program, it has seen some success. Since 2002, there have been 592 people in the program, 50 percent of whom have graduated, Berlin said.
"The idea when we're dealing with addicts is to try to cure them of the habit and make them productive citizens of society, and that's what we're trying to do in the state's attorney's office," he said.
Prevention through Education
When it comes to heroin, the Robert Crown Centers for Health Education in Hinsdale is taking a more grassroots approach.
Robert Crown CEO Kathleen Burke said the heroin epidemic came up suddenly and forced educators to rethink their drug prevention programs. When they started to learn more about the issue from law enforcement officials, they determined the problem was only surmountable by reducing the demand through education.
"It's prevention through education," Burke said. "If we wait until a child is in a vulnerable position and happens to try (heroin), that's a whole different story. And that story does not have a happy ending."
Through extensive research conducted by Roosevelt University, Robert Crown determined several contributing factors that lead some teenagers to heroin, including mental health issues and addiction to pain pills. The study also found that teenagers are more prone to drug use during periods of transition, such as starting a new school.
"Sometimes they make bad decisions, not because they're bad kids, but because they're feeling vulnerable and they're trying to fit in," Burke said.
Last year, Robert Crown announced a new heroin education and prevention program that was described as the first of its kind in the United States. The program, Burke said, will focus on teaching kids specifics about opiates and the consequences of doing heroin, physical and otherwise.
"Kids want things that are relevant and real," Burke said. "They don't want to be told 'Just say no,' or that drugs are bad for them, because they don't agree that all drugs are bad for them. We really need to distinguish that heroin and opiates will kill you, and you won't know when."
Keith Bullock, student assistance coordinator at North High, said he and Kristin Bormann, his counterpart at Downers Grove South, are always looking for ways to improve prevention education at their schools.
Currently, their departments support students with mental health issues, have programs for incoming freshman and work with community providers to assist students in need of treatment.
Removing the Stigma
While changing the approach to drug education is key, it's also important to have an open dialogue about the presence of heroin in each community, Burke said.
"We have to get rid of the stigma, because the stigma is what prevents us from moving forward and becoming an educated community. These aren't bad kids, and these aren't bad families. These are just kids that are having problems."
During the forum, three sets of parents from Downers Grove—including Jim and Laurie—stood and shared with the audience how heroin took the lives of their children. One mom thanked the police department for opening a dialogue with the community, and urged parents to share what they've learned.
"I didn't have this opportunity (before losing my son)," she said.
Also attending Thursday night was John Roberts, co-founder of HERO, the Heroin Epidemic Relief Organization. Roberts is a Homer Glen resident and retired Chicago police captain who lost his 19-year-old son to a heroin overdose in 2009.
The following year, he founded HERO with Brian Kirk, another Homer Glen dad who lost his son to an overdose. Together, Roberts and Kirk have organized rallies and spoken at several forums to raise awareness of the heroin epidemic in suburban Chicago.
Roberts pleaded with the parents in the audience to join local law enforcement and educators in their efforts to combat heroin.
"While I commend the efforts being made here by the Downers Grove Police Department and DUMEG, I think it's time we realize this problem is a particularly complex social problem that can not be solved solely by law enforcement," Roberts said. "It's time that we realize this is more than a crime problem, this is also a health crisis. We have to start treating this problem in a much more serious nature than ever before."
Roberts said the community must be relentless if they want to prevent heroin from claiming any more lives.
"Please help me change the fact that this is the epidemic that nobody is talking about," he said.
- Downers Grove Police to Hold Public Forum on Heroin Abuse
- Robert Crown Center Adds Heroin Prevention Program
- Traffic Stop Leads Police to Heroin Discovery
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