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Heroin: Small cities, even rural towns face growing problems

For many communities, the extent of heroin addiction comes as a shock. Yet efforts to confront it, including town-hall meetings and support groups, are slowly gaining ground.

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Today Patrianakos, who is in his mid-20s, works as a computer programmer, makes speeches about drugs, and works with support groups for parents whose children are struggling with addiction or have died from overdoses.

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In many places, heroin is still a hidden problem because of the stigma attached to the drug, parents and drug experts say. “There’s still an unwillingness to talk about it in some communities,” says Ms. Kane-Willis of Roosevelt University. “There’s a sense of shame and a ‘it’s not here’ mentality.”

That may be changing, with communities trying to deal with the problem more openly. “We’re trying to raise the curtain,” says Janice Harris, the mother of a 22-year-old heroin addict in Tucson, Ariz. Ms. Harris is founder of the There Is No Hero in Heroin Foundation, which held its first “community awareness forum” in Tucson in November.

The response to such endeavors has often exceeded expectations. Two years ago NCADA, a leader in anti-heroin efforts, planned three public meetings. It ended up holding 27. Schools that initially “didn’t want to have anything to do with us” began asking for help, Duncan says. Organizations outside Missouri wanted advice, too. “We’ve had calls from all over saying, ‘What did you guys do? We need to do something here,’ ” he says.

Recently, 11 high schools and middle schools in the Chicago area began teaching students about heroin using new educational materials from the Robert Crown Center for Health Education, a private organization in the Chicago suburbs. The center developed the materials because existing antidrug education wasn’t working, says Kathleen Burke, the center’s chief executive officer.

“Students didn’t know about heroin,” she says. “They were not aware of what addiction was.” As part of the new curriculum, students are guided through an interactive computer program based on the true story of an addict their own age.

For young people who become addicted, there’s often too little help available, parents and others say. “The problem is getting the kids into treatment quickly,” Duncan says. Some parents recount desperate struggles to find help for their children. Patty DiRenzo of Blackwood, N.J., just outside Philadelphia, recalls how, after her son was turned down by rehabilitation centers and away from hospital emergency rooms, she gave him vodka so he could be admitted to a rehabilitation center with beds available only for alcoholics.

“You do what you have to to save your child,” Ms. DiRenzo says. In and out of treatment, her son, Salvatore Marchese, was found dead of an overdose in his car in June 2010.

Parents also complain that courts and hospitals are sometimes poorly prepared to deal with drug addiction. “It was frustrating and heartbreaking to see, to live, the experiences my son when through – to see how the ‘system’ threw my son around and really got him nowhere,” says Bonnie Flazone-Capriola, a mother in Rockford, Ill. Ms. Flazone-Capriola says her son was arrested several times while seeking help for addiction.

“He once said to me, ‘I don’t know why they keep throwing me in jail. The only person I am hurting is myself,’ ” she says. He died of an overdose in 2010, she says, after a judge refused to allow him to receive methadone as a treatment for the addiction.


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