Heroin Highway — Naperville’s crusade against an addictive and deadly drug

September 2012 View more

NMAG0912_Feature_Large_MainChicago has one of the worst heroin problems in the country. According to a study by researchers at Roosevelt University’s Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy, more people in Chicago, and its suburbs, visit hospital emergency rooms with problems related to heroin than in any other major metropolitan area in the U.S. Experts worry that the problem is spreading to the suburbs.

“It’s one of the biggest issues were facing right now. Despite education efforts, the heroin numbers are consistent with last year,” said Det. Shaun Ferguson, Naperville Police Department.

The I-88 corridor is becoming what law enforcement officials call ‘the heroin highway’. It connects people from Naperville directly to the drug suppliers on Chicago’s west side. People are driving into the city to buy heroin and bringing it back to sell in suburban DuPage and Will Counties. Ferguson says he is also seeing a trend where dealers are coming directly to Naperville. “It’s a business and people know where there is a market,” said Ferguson.

Naperville seems to be more susceptible than other suburbs because it is a large, affluent city. “Kids in Naperville have access to their parent’s money and many teens don’t need to work, so they often have more free time available to socialize,” said Ferguson.

Deadly addiction

Heroin is cheap, accessible, highly addictive, and deadly, which makes it even more of a concern for drug prevention counselors than other drugs.

“Heroin is the most addictive drug. It doesn’t take much to take control of a person’s life. The sad truth about heroin is that one time with this drug may be all it takes to kill someone,” said Kimberly Groll, alcohol and drug addictions counselor at Care Clinics of Naperville.

Kimberly Groll writes a monthly column for the Naperville Beacon News and answers questions from parents and teens online at dearcounselorkim@aol.com. Groll says kids often start with cigarettes and alcohol, before branching out to marijuana, then moving to heroin and other drugs. “Teens seem to think they are invincible. That nothing’s going to happen to me,” said Groll.

The media attention surrounding the recent heroin deaths and arrests is putting the spotlight on an issue that impacts more than just Naperville. “This is not only a Naperville issue, it’s everywhere. And it’s not a new problem. It’s been around since the 1980s. However, we are just now beginning to talk about it and bring awareness to the problem,” said Groll.

 The victims

There have been 30 deadly heroin overdoses in Will County and at least six heroin deaths in Naperville in 2011. So far this year, there have been two heroin deaths in Naperville. Most recently, 20-year-old John C. Kacena, a 2010 graduate of Neuqua Valley High School, died of an apparent overdose on July 23 after months of battling a heroin addiction, according to police.

In January of this year, 18-year-old Megan Miller, a senior at Neuqua Valley, also died of a drug overdose.

“We were blind-sided by our daughters death,” said Amy Miller, Megan’s mother. She was doing other drugs and then moved to heroin. Megan turned to drugs as self medication to deal with other problems,” said Miller.

“We don’t know when she started using heroin but we believe she was getting it from a neighborhood friend who was also her dealer,” said Miller.

Since Megan’s death, her mother has been talking to seniors at Neuqua Valley about the dangers of heroin and other drugs as part of “The Elephant Project”- a program designed to confront the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about. “Kids need to hear it from other kids and from parents of kids who have died from an overdose,” said Miller. Miller is working with the school district and counselors to expand her talks to other high schools.

The warning signs

Parents are encouraged to be vigilant and closely monitor the behavior of their teens and watch for potential warning signs of drug use. “Parents should be aware of constricted pupils, withdrawn behavior, loved ones disappearing for long periods of time, personality changes including moodiness, change of interest or change of friends,” said Groll.

Other warning signs

  • Burnt gum wrappers or foil found in their child’s room
  • Missing shoelaces
  • Burnt or missing spoons
  • Eye drops being used
  • Sudden weight loss
  • Runny nose or constant sniffing
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Excessive itching or scratching

 Exposing heroin’s deadly grip

Awareness of the heroin problem is spreading. Law enforcement officials, counselors, parents, teens, and community leaders are coming together to expose, educate, and tackle the problem. In recent months, there have been several packed community forums throughout the city and Naperville school district.

“People are now talking about it. Naperville is standing up and doing something. The message is getting out there,” said Det. Ferguson.

Heroin is something that no one seemed to want to discuss until recently when people realized the drug’s deadly grip. “Teens need to speak up. They are too accepting of drugs. They all know who is using and who is dealing,” said Miller.

Taking action

Turning the tide against drug abuse needs to start at home. Amy Miller says parents need to be vigilant and become parental police officers when it comes to their children. “Check their cell phones, text messages, learn the language kids are speaking and texting. Check out who their friends are. Do a google search of their (friends) names to check their background,” said Miller.

“Parents need to be involved, educate yourself about the drug names and what they look like,” said Det Ferguson. Law enforcement officials also recommend monitoring your teens social media, computer use, and other online activity.

“The Power of Choice”

While heroin use is a serious problem in Chicago and the suburbs, it is impacting a small percentage of the overall teenage population in Naperville. According to researchers at 360 Youth Services, a vast majority of Naperville teenagers are making healthy choices and staying away from drugs and alcohol.

360 Youth Services, formerly NCO of Naperville, has been surveying student perceptions about drug and alcohol use in conjunction with Naperville School Districts, for the past nine years. They are part of larger coalition of community partners formed in 2000 called The Power of Choice.

“We surveyed nearly 15,000 students from all five Naperville high schools. We found that student perceptions about drug use is vastly different from reality,” said Karen Jarczyk, drug prevention director at 360 Youth Services. Researchers say teens are more often influenced by what they think their peers are doing than what is reality. “The reality is that most kids are not using drugs or alcohol. Our studies show that the number of kids not using drugs and alcohol is actually increasing. In our latest survey, 76% of teens said they had not used alcohol or drugs in the last 30 days,” said Jarczyk.

“Students clearly believe that more people use substances than actually do. So we attempt to dispel the myth that ‘everyone is doing it,’” said Jeffery Farson, director of student services at Naperville North. Farson works with 360 Youth Services, the Naperville school district, and several other agencies to educate teens and parents about drug and alcohol abuse.

“We incorporate a drug education unit in health class. This class is a graduation requirement for all students,” said Farson.

Drug addiction experts and law enforcement officials say the best defense is creating trusting, strong, and mutually respectful relationships with teens. Once teens believe an adult is on their side they will often open up about their use of drugs and alcohol and other social issues.

Resources Available

DEA Resource for Parents:

  • www.getsmartaboutdrugs.com

Street Drug Descriptions:

  • www.streetdrugs.org
  • www.epocrates.com/mobile

Pill Identification:

  • www.drugs.com/pill_identification.html

General Drug Education:

  • www.drugfree.org

Understanding Slang: “What did they say…?”

  • www.urbandictionary.com

Text Message Dictionary:

  • www.netlingo.com/search.php

Naperville Public Schools:

  • www.naperville203.org/north/guidanceandhealthoffices/DrugsandTeensResourcesforParents.asp

360 Youth Services:

  • www.ncoyouth.org

The Power of Choice:

  • www.Thepowerofchoice.info

 Criminal Justice Related Links

Naperville Municipal Code:

  • www.naperville.il.us/municipalcode.aspx

Naperville Crimestoppers: