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Staring up at the new billboard she had installed on Milwaukee Avenue in Wheeling, Chrystal Beinlich starts to cry.
"If this doesn't get their attention, I don't know what will," the Lincolnshire mother says, as she wipes a tear off her cheek and a friend wraps an arm around her shoulder. "If we have to be in people's faces, we will."
The billboard, which went up Monday, urges parents to talk to their children about heroin and offers free drug-testing kits at nickbeinlich.com. It's Beinlich's latest effort to educate parents about heroin's growing presence in the suburbs, which has been her mission since her 18-year-old son, Nick, died of an overdose in 2007.
Getting parents' attention has been difficult and frustrating, she said, because of a prevalent not-my-kid mindset.
Parents took every precaution to protect their children from H1N1 swine flu, which killed 76 people statewide this year. Yet, heroin killed more than 100 people in the suburbs alone in 2009 and Beinlich said it seems as if hardly anyone blinked. Drug educational forums put on by several suburban high schools and police departments drew only a few dozen people each.
"There's blood running in the streets, but no one's paying attention. They just walk over it like it's a puddle," said Lea Minalga, a Geneva mom whose son is a recovering heroin addict. She now runs Hearts of Hope, a group that helps families deal with drug addiction. "I (tell parents), 'Do you understand that unless you're prepared, this could happen to you?' They think it can't happen to them, so they tune out."
As heroin's popularity grows in the suburbs, so does the number of parents who have lived the nightmare of having an addicted child. A single dose can kill, and a life-destroying addiction can begin in a matter of days, police say. So parents who've had all-too-close encounters with addiction are now mobilizing in an effort to wake people up to the dangerous drug lurking around their teenage children.
"We're the key to this," Minalga said. "The power will come from us. If we can empower the parents, then the legislators will pay attention and the schools will pay attention."
Parents pushed for the new law that takes effect Jan. 1 making it legal for anyone who has the proper training to carry Narcan, a prescription drug already used by medical workers that reverses the effects of a heroin overdose. The legislation was sponsored by several suburban state senators.
Some health care professionals are critical of the law, saying it's not the solution to heroin addiction.
"On one level, it makes sense. But it doesn't solve the problem. It can cause other problems," said Dr. Michael Born, medical director of the emergency room at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights.
While Born agrees it could potentially save lives, he questioned whether Narcan will be misused or abused. When Narcan wakes people up, they sometimes act violently or vomit, he said. It's not something that a person would want to experience repeatedly.
Parents also are having informal discussions whether to push for a law that would grant immunity to anyone who calls 911 to report a drug overdose. Such a law might save lives and prevent people from dumping bodies of overdose victims, but it also could let drug users off the hook.
Often, parents say, drug users are afraid to call 911 to report a friend's overdose for fear that they'll get in trouble themselves.
When Michael York, 17, of Elburn, overdosed on heroin last December, his friends dumped his body in a snow-filled alley on the West Side of Chicago. Local college student Gina Dominick, 20, was found dead of a heroin overdose in the Prospect Heights library's parking lot. Authorities said her panicked friends left her there.
Heroin's growing popularity in the suburbs can be attributed to a few things, experts say. First, it's easy to get. Police officers say there's a steady stream of nice cars filled with suburban kids rolling into the West side of Chicago, where they buy the drugs on the street corner. Heroin's also cheap - a $10 "dime bag" can contain up to 12 doses, said Bruce Talbot, a retired Woodridge police sergeant who now leads drug training programs at schools and police departments.
Some experts believe this generation's comfort with prescription drugs also fuels the problem. Many kids who end up on heroin start out by abusing a prescription drug that's been legitimately prescribed for them or their parents, such as Xanax or Vicodin, Talbot said. Eventually, they move on to more dangerous drugs.
"By the time kids get to high school, pills aren't scary to them anymore," said Mary Jo Capone of Vernon Hills, whose son, Phil, is recovering from a heroin addiction. "It seems like everyone's taking something."
A generation ago, heroin was largely thought of as a scary, inner-city drug. Today, it's trendy to some high school students who don't recognize how highly addictive and dangerous it is.
"They think it's like marijuana or something," said Bruce Johnson, director of NICASA, a substance-abuse center based in Round Lake. "They don't think there's going to be this horrific change in their life because of this."
Minalga says the drug seems to be infiltrating more higher-income, all-American families lately. She said these are good kids from good homes who make a bad choice, and can end up on a life-destroying path in a matter of days.
When parents learn their children are using heroin, or have a problem, it's difficult to get help - and the help isn't always enough.
Matthew McGovern, a 19-year-old from Buffalo Grove who was arrested twice on drug charges, is now in his third rehab program to deal with his heroin use, according to a friend speaking for the family.
It's not an unusual situation, and it leaves parents feeling helpless.
Resources are out there, but they're limited and pricey. Phil Capone, 19, recently completed a yearlong, $5,400-a-month program at a private facility in Arizona.
Stephen Smith, a unit coordinator for Rosecrance's men's residential program in Rockford, says most rehab centers have waiting lists.
"It's heartbreaking," he said. "Funding is disappearing."
The stigma associated with heroin also prevents parents from seeking help, fearing they'll be judged if anyone finds out.
But parents whose children have become entangled with heroin all say it's important to get help and support immediately because time is not on their side. The addiction grabs hold quickly, threatening to ruin users' hopes for careers, chemically alter their brains and make them go through hell and back to beat the addiction.
"It's up to the parents to be a little more educated and enlightened as to what's going on with their kids. They sometimes have blinders on. I did," said Jody Daitchman of Buffalo Grove, whose 20-year-old son, Alex Laliberte, died of a heroin overdose in December 2008. "The thought of anyone else going through this is horrific."
Daitchman admits she had a not-my-kid attitude before her son died. She knew he was "partying" with alcohol and marijuana, but never dreamed heroin was part of the mix.
"I never saw him high until the day before I found him (dead)," she said. "When a kid says to you, 'I'm just drinking and smoking pot,' I don't know if I'd believe them. (Alex) was an absolutely wonderful, wonderful, special kid, and I don't think he realized what he was getting himself into."
Minalga and other moms says it's important for parents to talk to their kids about drugs, because even if it doesn't seem like they're listening, they are. But first parents need to educate themselves.
"A lot of parents say, 'I had no idea there was heroin in this town,' but it's definitely here," said Michelle Hines, a mom from Lake Zurich who said she's seen heroin ruin the lives of several young people in her community. "We need to wake people up before it's too late."
Beinlich plans to keep her billboard up on one of the area's busiest streets until she runs out of money.
"I'm hoping this approach works," said Beinlich. "We need to make people aware. This is here. We need to be bold and in people's faces. Did I ever in a million years think my child would die of a heroin overdose? Absolutely not. If we can prevent one senseless death, it's all worth it."