Open house planned on DuPage County heroin problem

With DuPage County heroin overdoses skyrocketing in recent years, county officials will hold an open house to discuss ways to deal with the problem.

“We know that we have challenges,” Darlene Ruscitti, DuPage regional superintendent of education, told the DuPage County Board concerning the heroin situation.

While giving her quarterly report to the board, Ruscitti announced plans for a Jan. 23 open house for local officials and community members to exchange ideas and information on the drug that is estimated to have caused an overdose death every week in 2013 in DuPage.

DuPage County officials first began tracking heroin overdose deaths in 2007 and for the first few years the number stayed relatively stable — between 20 and 25 annually.

But they spiked at 38 in 2012 and reached the one-death-a-week mark last year, although the official numbers for December 2013 are not yet available.

The open house will be at the County Auditorium at 421 N. County Farm Road in Wheaton and will include a session at 3:30 p.m. with counselors, social workers and representatives of the DuPage County State’s Attorney’s office.

Additionally, there will be a Feb. 28 public forum at an undetermined high school, where student representatives of area high schools will meet with local officials and community members to provide the student perspective on the heroin problem.

Although the scourge of heroin abuse cuts across all demographics, DuPage officials see educating young people as a crucial first step in tackling the problem before it gets any worse.

“Awareness and public education seem to be the most effective tool here,” DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin said.

After the meeting, Cronin noted that the relative potency of the drug makes it a far different problem than the one faced by previous generations.

“It’s an extremely addictive drug,” he stressed. “It is so powerful that we know a certain percentage (who try it) will never be able to walk away from it. It is a quantitatively different drug.”

And that’s the message that Cronin feels is most important to get across to young people.

“It’s the only way to effectively stop heroin overdoses,” he said. “Educate them before they try it.”

County Board member Grant Eckhoff, chairman of the Judicial and Public Safety Committee, echoed Cronin’s sentiments about misconceptions about the modern version of the drug.

“It’s not a recreational drug,” he said.

Moreover, Eckhoff said that the heroin problem is one that affects all demographics.

“It’s not just one little part of DuPage County,” he said.

Sitting in her office in the Education Department later, Ruscitti opened up about her experiences since joining the county effort against heroin and the learning curve that she and other officials went through as they educated themselves on the problem.

“I was extremely surprised by the extent to which the kids are aware of the drug,” she said.

She produced an email communication from a DuPage parent of a 15-year-old high school student, prompted by her conversation with a local official who told her of the spike in heroin overdose deaths.

“What concerns me is that she is aware of the substances (i.e. marijuana and heroin) and knows who is actively taking these substances,” read the email.

Ruscitti was equally surprised that many high school students became involved after a sports injury or having wisdom teeth pulled and needing a strong anti-pain medication.

Ruscitti has been active in the DuPage County Coalition Against Heroin since its inception, but worries that the fight to combat the drug will lose its sense of urgency as time passes.

“We need to not let it just be the flavor of the month,” she said. “It’s everyone’s problem … the schools, the community, and the parents.”

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