Despite progress, heroin fight in suburbs far from over
More lives are being saved, but addiction isn't slowing down
Hope and disappointment.
They're the two most common sentiments shared by leaders of suburban anti-heroin efforts.
"Heroin in the Suburbs: Through Their Eyes"The Daily Herald's series "Heroin in the Suburbs: Through Their Eyes" visited the lives of 13 people affected by the heroin crisis or working to solve it. You can find the series at http://bit.ly/DailyHeraldHeroinSeries
For the past year, the Daily Herald has profiled those involved in an all-out campaign against the dangerous opiate: coroners, police, drug enforcement agencies, nonprofit agencies, families, treatment professionals, educators, religious leaders, drug court officers and politicians.
There's hope, they say, because an antidote is saving the lives of some heroin users who have overdosed.
But there's disappointment, too, because despite all their efforts at education and outreach, the number of suburban heroin overdoses continues to climb.
An increase in the number of seizures of heroin and arrests of dealers who sell the drug on Chicago's West and South side offers hope.
But the disappointment returns when another dealer steps up to meet the continued demand.
One of the biggest signs of hope is the noticeable increase in awareness. More people are talking about heroin and more people want to help combat the problem.
Still, use of the drug has yet to drop.
So there is continued disappointment, especially for families losing loved ones to the drug and for addicts who just can't beat it.
Those who have joined the fight agree progress is being made. But they also agree there is much work still to be done and they must keep pushing forward.
"Heroin is our top priority," said Mark Piccoli, director of the DuPage Metropolitan Enforcement Group. "We're not seeing a decline."
Today we take a look at some glimmers of hope and some causes of dismay. On Monday, we examine what may come next.
Hope: Heroin fight successfully saving lives
The good news in the fight against heroin is lives are being saved.
An opiate overdose reversal drug called naloxone, also known as Narcan or Evzio, has made its way to police officers in most departments in DuPage and Lake counties. Efforts to expand its availability continue in Cook, Kane and McHenry counties.
First-responders using the antidote in DuPage saved 34 lives last year. In Lake County, 23 lives have been saved since December. In Kane County, sheriff's deputies made their second save July 10, and McHenry County first-responders also recently made their first save.
"I'm not happy that we have people overdosing, but I'm ecstatic that we have had so much success in such a short amount of time," Round Lake Park Police Chief George Filenko said. "The whole purpose on the law enforcement end was to get this into police officers' hands and start saving lives."
Filenko helped start the Lake County Opioid Initiative in 2014 with three other people. The group, which helped equip officers with the heroin antidote, has grown to more than 200 members.
"We've got schoolteachers, heads of the teacher unions, lawyers, people who have lost kids to (heroin) and recovering people, heads of agencies, police departments," said Susan McKnight, a Lake County Health Department employee and initiative member. "It's amazing."
A similar initiative in the Western suburbs, called the DuPage Coalition Against Heroin, also has been successful in raising awareness since it formed in 2013 in response to a spike in heroin deaths.
More students are being informed, thanks to the Hinsdale-based Robert Crown Center's heroin prevention program and assemblies with people who have been directly affected by the drug, such as Medinah mother Felicia Miceli, who leads the LTM Foundation aiming to save lives in honor of her late son, Louie, who overdosed.
At the state level, a number of anti-heroin legislative proposals were rolled into a package called the Heroin Crisis Act sponsored by state Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat. It ended up on Gov. Bruce Rauner's desk in late June, but without a specific plan to pay for the measures it proposed. A spokeswoman for Rauner's office said he will "carefully consider" any legislation that reaches him, but she didn't offer any detail on his thoughts about the heroin bill.
The bill seeks availability of naloxone at pharmacies, extension of Good Samaritan protection to those who administer naloxone, better tracking of overdoses treated at hospitals, development of a three-year heroin and opioid abuse prevention curriculum for schools, and changes to drug court programs for nonviolent offenders.
Overall, advocates agree public knowledge about the heroin problem and willingness to discuss it have significantly improved in the past few years.
"When we first started, people were shocked. They said 'Heroin? Really? In Naperville?'" said Diane Overgard, project manager of ParentsMatterToo, a positive parenting nonprofit group that was formed in 2013 in response to the heroin crisis. "Now I feel like it's been in the press and parents are aware."
Disappointment: Heroin use still 'out there'
Even as overdose reversal drugs have saved the lives of dozens of heroin users, experts say they're deeply troubled by one overriding concern: there are no signs of a decrease in the drug's popularity in the suburbs.
"If anything, it's increased," said Susan McKnight, the Lake County Health Department's substance abuse program coordinator. "It's out there and I'm sure it's going to be out there for a while because it's so readily available and so cheap."
Mark Piccoli, who leads the DuPage Metropolitan Enforcement Group, said he's seen increasing use as well.
"If it wasn't for the use of Narcan here in DuPage County, we'd be seeing more overdose deaths," he said.
The death toll from heroin in DuPage was 33 in 2014, but it could have been as high as 66 without the naloxone saves. That would have been 21 more than the record 46 heroin deaths reported in the county in 2013.
Convincing heroin users to admit their problem, seek treatment and get accepted into a program is an ongoing challenge.
Jim Scarpace, executive director of Gateway Foundation Alcohol and Drug Treatment in Aurora, says treatment often isn't successful on the first try. It can take months of detox, inpatient care and outpatient appointments, and because the drug is so powerful, addicts often relapse.
"Sometimes it takes two or three times in treatment for something to click and someone to be honest to themselves," he said. "Once they start opening up, then we can help them."
Drug court officers in Kane County say addicts often show reluctance when they start what is at least a 30-month program.
Funding has created limitations for many entities fighting the drug, including treatment centers, schools and local governments.
Coroner Rob Russell said Kane County is "a little bit behind the times," in part because elected officials didn't budget enough to get naloxone in the hands of every first-responder.
In Lake County, officers in a few police departments, including Gurnee and North Chicago, have been trained to use naloxone, but have yet to start carrying it.
"In training, some of them said, 'I don't think this is part of our job, we shouldn't be doing it.'" McKnight said. "Other officers were saying, 'Yeah we should, we're trained to save lives.'"
Increasing financial constraints at schools throughout the suburbs means private donors are the key to getting the Robert Crown Center's anti-heroin program or others like it into additional schools.
Despite the increases in conversations and awareness over the past few years, it still can be difficult to get the public to admit there is a heroin problem in their own neighborhood.
"I think it's being broken down, but the stigma, it inhibits people's willingness to address it," said Katherine Leibforth of the Robert Crown Center. "People don't want to think about it. People really don't want to face it."
• See our full "Heroin in the Suburbs: Through Their Eyes" series at http://bit.ly/DailyHeraldHeroinSeries