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updated: 9/6/2011 10:05 AM

Naperville deaths prompt the tough calls

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"Want me to call the parents?"

It's a question that puts a bit of a knot in my stomach.

When I'm asked, it usually means a young life has been claimed in a tragic way.

The question came again earlier this week from Josh Stockinger, our courts reporter. The story he was working on was confirming that two Naperville 17-year-olds who died suspiciously and within a week of each other this summer had died of drug-related causes.

The easy answer -- and perhaps to some, the right one -- would have been, no, leave them alone, they probably don't want to be bothered by us.

But that's a cop-out.

We call for the same reason we try to contact the families, friends of people, young and old, who die in ways traditionally considered newsworthy: This likely will be our first and last attempt to chronicle their lives. And much like the carefully worded obituary, this is our chance to tell more than the tragic circumstances that led to their deaths. That there was more to the person than the car accident, the plane crash or the drug overdose.

In the case of the latter, there's an important component that we need to remind readers of from time to time: Drugs are an insidious part of life and, unfortunately, death in the suburbs. In fact, only a few weeks after the death of the Naperville teens, which we initially reported only as deaths of unknown origin, word had spread through the community that both had succumbed to drugs -- one through heroin and the other from a combination of over-the-counter cold medicine and alcohol. It prompted Stephanie Willis, an addictions therapist at Linden Oaks, the mental health facility of Edward Hospital, to write a letter to the editor.

It pulled no punches. Willis reminded our readers that drug use remains an "epidemic." That our children are "going to local pharmacies, malls, head shops and gas stations to purchase psychedelic incense, bath salts that act as amphetamines and over-the-counter cough medicines that have hallucinogenic features. They're getting high off prescription pain killers like Vicodin, Norco, OxyContin and Percocet at a cost of $40-50 a pill, bought from other students." But some look for a cheaper high, she said, and take I-290, the "Heroin Highway," to pick up a $10 bag of heroin.

More than a decade ago, the newspaper took on a yearlong project called the "Hidden Scourge." We tried to chronicle, in specific detail, all of the drug-related deaths of young people in our circulation area. Part of the point, of course, to put a face on these deaths, but also to let the world know how real and immediate the problem is. We also looked for the "good" stories -- the ones telling of young people who overcame their addictions, often highlighting the agencies where addicts or their loved ones could go for help, such as NAMI, Narcotics Anonymous, Al-Anon.

That was one of the reasons Stockinger contacted Linden Oaks again for some perspective on the deaths of the Naperville teens, whose families could not be reached for his story, which ran Friday.

Beth Sack, manager of addiction services at Linden Oaks, reiterated the teens' deaths should draw needed attention to the prevalence of drugs in the community, particularly heroin. "Awareness from the parental point of view is key right now," she said.

Though there are no immediate plans to relaunch a "hidden scourge" series, the deaths of the Naperville teens remind us of why the sad stories, and the difficult calls we must make, may always be something we have to do.