Every person who dies from an overdose is someone's child.
In this epidemic, thousands of parents have buried their children, or fear they will. No grief cuts deeper than that of a mother who's lost a child to drugs. They've lived through the chaos of drug addiction; seen it through the lens of a parent's unconditional love. They've felt the helplessness of wanting to do something, trying to do something, but watching, almost powerless, as addiction to heroin consumed their kids.
For some moms, the experience steeled their resolve to make a difference and, with their lives already irreversibly changed, they've become advocates for change in how we treat addiction. As part of WCPO's Heroin Project: How Do We Respond?, we asked some moms to share their experiences and speak out about what they believe needs to happen.
Fourteen years ago, long before heroin turned into the full-blown storm it is today, Charlotte Wethington started speaking out about a drug that was then believed to be the refuge of rock-n-rollers, down-and-outers and others on the fringes of society. Not of her son, Casey, who played sports and liked video games and skateboarding. But Charlotte was one of the first to raise the alarm about the return of heroin after Casey overdosed and died on Aug. 22, 2002 at the age of 23.
Charlotte went public after Casey suffered a third, and fatal, overdose. “Casey died, and an advocate was born,” she now says. She hasn’t stopped.
“I knew I had to do something,” she said recently. “I had to do something to survive. I didn’t want to live.”
She turned her grief and anger into action, succeeding in getting “Casey’s Law” passed in Kentucky. Using the law, a parent or guardian can now ask a court to order an adult to drug treatment. Casey was legally an adult when he died, but years of addiction left him, as it does everyone, unable to make sound decisions. His parents, without the legal authority, couldn't intervene and force him into treatment. Now in Kentucky and Ohio they can. Other states have also followed the model of Casey's Law.
"I've gotten calls from over half the states asking,'How can we get a Casey's Law in our state?'" she says. Fourteen years after her son's death, Charlotte travels throughout Kentucky, Ohio and the rest of the country speaking passionately about the disease of addiction. Nearly 500 people have used the law to order drug treatment.
"Caseys Law has given people a glimpse of recovery," Charlotte says.
Thousands of moms have suffered the loss of a child from heroin or heroin-like drugs. Like Charlotte, they have something to say. We talked to moms, and asked them to share their stories and their thoughts on how the community's response needs to change.
'There need to be new models for treatment'
There can be life after drugs. Isn't that what drug treatment should be about, modeling a productive, sober life? Before drugs, Charlene Wagster’s son, Jared, was an All-American swimmer for St. Xavier, swam for the Cincinnati Marlins, earned a swimming scholarship to Arizona State and "was a great, great kid,” she says. “Everyone loved him.”
When Jared was 15, his father passed away. That began what his mom describes as a descent into addiction. “I never dreamed in a million years that this would happen,” she says.
Jared tried to get clean three different times at three different treatment programs. None of them worked for him. He moved to Colorado to start a legal marijuana-related business. That provided him the money to support his heroin habit, his mom says. He died of an overdose on Feb. 17, 2014 at the age of 27. Charlene found out through a message from the Boulder County coroner.
After living through Jared’s struggles, she believes treatment methods for heroin addicts are inadequate. “There need to be new models for treatment. I don’t think it’s working.”
Her son stayed briefly at a place called Harvest Farm, in rural Colorado, where “work therapy” is considered a way to learn how to lead a new life without drugs. But he couldn't handle the withdrawal from heroin and left after a few days.
“Adults and young people need to experience that there is life after drugs. Maybe they should learn to live; maybe they should learn to enjoy life without drugs.”
That would take longer to learn than the 28-day stay that is the norm for inpatient or residential addiction treatment.
It would also mean a shift away from what is still a prevailing method for heroin treatment: the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program. At its core, AA programs command the addict to believe that only "a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity."
"With my son, the 12 steps did not work," Charlene says. "He was angry at God for taking his father."
'She wasn't getting any support in prison'
Katrina Sauerwein is happy that her daughter is in prison. At least there, she's still alive and less likely to overdose and die.
Her daughter, Courtney Hasse, went to prison three days after giving birth by C-section. At the time, she was on Vivitrol, a prescription drug designed to keep addicts off of heroin. She was also taking medicine for depression to ward off the gloom that can lead to a relapse.
But when she was processed into Dayton Correctional Institution, her medication stopped.
“She was starting to do well and she wasn’t getting any kind of medical support in prison,” says her mom. “They completely stopped her antidepressants, completely stopped her Vivitrol.”
If addiction is to be treated as a disease, as most medical organizations say it should be, then keeping those trying to recover on their proven, effective medications, such as Vivitrol, is essential. But going to jail, or prison, where many addicts find themselves, means losing access to those medications.
Courtney has been in and out of rehab about 10 times and always returned to heroin.
All those years of rehab have left Katrina and her husband exhausted. “Financially, we’re broke. Mentally, we’re broke,” she says.
Courtney is due to be released this month and her mom is afraid that she’ll be starting right back at square one because her medical treatments were stopped when she went to prison.
“They told her she was not going to be there long enough to remain in medical supervision,” Katrina says. Courtney is now in her ninth month at Dayton Correctional Institution.
Around 80 percent of the people in jail suffer from addiction, jail officials have said. It makes sense to find a way to treat addiction while addicts are in jail, or at the least allow access to medication, so they can have a fighting chance at staying clean when they get out.
Someone in prison is being denied their medication? That’s inhumane.”
– Charlotte Wethington
'We should always be in the loop'
A mother’s grief over a lost child runs deep. Colleen Perry’s son, Aaron, died Dec. 13, 2015. Recently, she dreamed about how the drug might be coming into the community. “I dreamed it was coming through Anderson Ferry," she says. "There’s no security there.”
Aaron was only a few months out of River City Correctional, the locked down rehab facility in Camp Washington, when Colleen heard on the news about an overdose victim found dead in a portable toilet downtown.
“I knew right away it was him,” she says. She knew he'd been camping out next to Paul Brown Stadium on the concrete of Lot D. She could no longer let him stay at home because he had stolen everything he could from his parents so he could pay for drugs.
What bothers her most is the lack of communication from police, hospitals, and others that her son came into contact with. Although he had been arrested, and hospitalized for heroin, she was left to guess about his safety and his whereabouts because he was an adult and they weren’t required to notify his parents.
“We should always be in the loop because, you know, when they pass away, guess who they call?”
“When there’s an overdose admission to a hospital, they say, ‘Oh, he’s not a minor, we can’t call the parents. But they’ll bill your insurance.”
Aaron's first time in jail was because of his mom. She had him arrested. "I was able to get some sleep because I knew he was in jail," she says. "But once they go to jail, they do nothing. They put them in jail; they let them detox, and that’s it."
Colleen's son also experienced the ineffective treatment that comes with jail. He was scheduled to get Vivitrol in Butler County's jail, but he was transferred to Hamilton County to face charges there. His Vivitrol didn’t follow him. “I asked them about that and they said, ‘Well, that was in Butler County.’”
'This illness is mind, body and soul'
Becky Lipp’s daughter, DeeAnn, was creative and loved music. But once she got addicted to heroin, that all went away. She stole her mom's TV and jewelry, robbed people outside convenience stores, stole a car to pay for drugs.
But Becky got her enrolled in a substance abuse and mental health program in Butler County, where she thrived. “She stayed clean two-and-a-half years,” her mom says. “She was happy. “I’ve never seen so much growth and change.”
But life happened. DeeAnn lost her grandmother, then her grandfather. Then her job. She stopped taking her medication and depression dragged her down. She turned to the one thing she knew would make her feel better.
“She used one time in two-and-a-half years and it killed her,” Becky says. Paramedics brought DeeAnn back to life and she survived a week on life support before she died from an overdose of heroin and fentanyl on Jan. 15, 2016 at the age of 27. Becky now cares for DeeAnn's 5-year-old son.
"I had to make a decision to take my daughter off of life support. It was the hardest time in my life."
DeeAnn needed regular counseling and therapy after her rehab. She needed to learn how to handle the losses and pain that life inevitably brings, without resorting to drugs.
Her depression “was the gateway for her to be vulnerable enough to start using again,” her mom says.
"This illness is mind, body and soul," she says. "You have to treat every area."
Like diabetes, heart disease and other chronic, lifelong medical problems, addiction may require a lifetime of care. But care for a recovering addict often means treating the mind and the soul with regular counseling and therapy so they can learn to handle life's stress without the quick fix of heroin.
“People have a period of sobriety, but what happened?" Becky wonders. "Why do they always go back to that one thing?”
'They treated us like we were dirt'
Amy Russ’ son, Eric, gave few outward signs he was using heroin.
He kept a job. Saved money for a car. “We had no clue,” Amy says, until a cousin of Eric's told her what was going on.
But Eric refused to go to rehab; he didn’t think it worked. He tried detoxing at home. “It was the worst, most terrible thing I ever went through,” she says.
On Nov. 15, 2015, after a night at the casino, he came home and fatally overdosed from heroin and fentanyl in his basement bedroom at the age of 27.
That began an encounter with police that aggravated her pain.
“The Loveland police did not care one bit about my son being dead,” she says. “They treated him like he was a piece of dirt. They treated our family like we were dirt.”
They seemed disinterested in trying to track down who sold the drug, even though she had evidence.
“I found heroin in his wallet and called the Loveland police department. I called four times and they said I had to call the officer who was there. I had his phone. There were text messages to the person he brought drugs from. I had drugs and needles that we found and the Loveland police didn’t want to come and get them.”
Eric's fatal overdose included fentanyl, a painkiller that is much deadlier than heroin. The recent spike in overdoses has been attributed by law enforcement officials to fentanyl and carfentanil, an even deadlier drug. Tracking those drugs back to the dealers who sold them is vital to getting them off the streets.
Some police departments and first responders have adopted new attitudes to addiction, but there’s still a long way to go.
“Whenever we get pissed off moms together, things get done.”
– Chief Tom Synan, Hamilton County Heroin Coalition
'Don't let them hit rock bottom, because they die'
When a heroin addict decides to get off the drug, it’s important to act. But that’s often not possible to get the needed help right away.
In their journey, Tami George and her son, Zach, found one of the inconsistencies of the treatment system: It’s very difficult to detox on demand, at least with the proper medical care. Because of a lack of inpatient detox facilities, a drug user must typically wait days to get in. A matter of days to an addict can be like a lifetime.
“They have to keep calling every day to see if there’s any room,” Tami says.
Drug users are asked to call every day to see if a bed is available. And, in a mind-boggling paradox, there must be drugs in the body in order to detox, so addicts need to keep using even as they seek a space to safely get the drugs out of their systems.
“The treatment centers need you to be positive before they let you in detox,” Tami says.
Zach was clean for more than three years, a remarkable accomplishment. But fighting addiction, especially to heroin and opiates, happens one day at a time.
Zach benefited from the 12-step program at Grateful Life in Erlanger, but he died on April 24, 2016 from an overdose of heroin and fentanyl. Tami believes his fatal relapse was triggered by kratom, a legal, over-the-counter stimulant that is found in energy drinks and other products.
Zach was introduced to heroin in high school and that began Tami’s battle to keep him alive. She filed in Kentucky juvenile court to declare him an unruly child. After he became a legal adult, she filed two Casey’s Law petitions to get him into treatment. He tried Suboxone to stay off heroin, but ended up abusing it.
Some say addicts have to hit bottom before they can start to turn their lives around. But for a heroin user, there may be no rebounding from the bottom.
“Heroin addicts aren’t the same,” she says. “You don’t let them hit rock bottom because they die.”
'Education needs to start in middle school'
Terri Ferguson's son, Joshua Brabender, started abusing the prescription painkiller Percocet and the anti-anxiety drug Xanax as early as eighth grade. That was the start of 10 years of addiction, that only ended with his death on Jan. 2, 2016 at the age of 24.
With her son beginning his drug abuse at 14, she wants to see stepped-up, coordinated, early efforts at preventing abuses before it starts.
“This education needs to start in middle school with parents and children,” she says.
Josh's father, Todd Brabender, a religion instructor, wrote a letter to his eighth-grade students at Holy Family Church in Oldenburg, telling them about his son's life and death. The message was simple: Get to know Josh and you can know some of the loss and pain his death caused. Then, you may make the right decisions if faced with the choice to use heroin or other drugs.
Joshua would travel from his parents home in Ripley County, Ind. to Cincinnati to buy. Like Amy Russ, Terri was frustrated with police follow-up. Hamilton County heroin task force officials refused to take her son’s phone, even though it contained numbers and messages from drug dealers.
'Forgiving ourselves is the hard part'
Dorothy McIntosh Shuemake has gentle advice for moms of children lost to heroin: forgive yourself.
Dorothy’s daughter, Alison, was just 18 when she died, just graduated from Marshall High School in Middletown.
She’s not sure why Alison started in on drugs. It might have been the painkillers she got for her softball injuries. It might have been the severe depression she suffered in high school. It might have been her bipolar tendencies. It might have been that she wanted to escape. Or all of the above.
Whatever it was, she started drinking and smoking pot, like a lot of “rascally teen-agers.”
“That wasn’t fun, but it’s like every teen-ager, isn’t it?” her mom asks.
Somewhere along the line, pot and drinking progressed to heroin.
And that left a mother who loved her child unconditionally to struggle now with the burden of guilt.
“I can forgive her for everything,” she says. “But every day I ask myself: ‘What if I had…?’ ‘What if I hadn’t…?’”
“Forgiving ourselves is the hard part.”
'I don't want my son to die'
Heather Peck is one of the lucky ones. Her son, Kylen, is alive. For the last year and a half, he’s been recovering from his addiction.
But the tenuousness of recovery from heroin has her living in fear.
”My biggest fear is he’s going to have a relapse and he’s going to die,” she says.
At this point, her hopes for her son are the most elemental that any mother has for her child.
“I don’t want my son to die. I want him to stay sober and stay healthy.”