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Thursday, September 8, 2011

Any teen can get mixed up with drug abuse, parents say

In 2008, Fairfax County police busted a heroin ring in Centreville involving more than 50 teens and young adults, many of them students or former students at Westfield High School. Four youths died of overdoses. Sixteen people were convicted, with three sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Two of the parents and one youth who had been involved in that nightmare told their stories at a meeting of the Mason Police District’s Citizens Advisory Council (CAC) Sept. 6 in Annandale. They often speak to local groups about the dangers of drugs and alcohol through an organization called PROTECT, which stands for Parents Reaching Out to Educate Communities Together.

Tayler Gibson
Tayler Gibson, now 22, told the CAC how she had been a good student and was active in Young Life and sports—soccer and field hockey—and still became hooked on heroin. After her mother had had a stroke and went into a coma, “I didn’t deal with it so well,” she says. Then, while working in a restaurant, she began smoking weed with her older co-workers.

“Very quickly, it spiraled out of control,” Gibson says. She was arrested for possession, but was able to convince her parents the drugs weren’t hers, and the charges were dropped on a technicality. She soon moved on to heroin. She was arrested again, this time for intent to distribute, and once, again she was able to dodge a bullet, “I suffered no consequences for my poor choices,” she says.

Even the death of a good friend from an overdose didn’t motivate Gibson to quit. And when her boyfriend was arrested and she lost her supplier, her response was to steal her mother’s car to buy heroin in D.C. She crashed the car, and then she finally told her parents she was using heroin but only to distract them from being angry at her for stealing and crashing the car.

She was placed in a treatment program and after a couple of false starts was finally motivated to stop using drugs and has been clean for two years. She now works in a hair salon.

Greg Richter, who also spoke at the meeting, says it took him a long time for him and his wife to confirm that that their daughter was a heroin addict. She was putting her family through a “living hell,” and they suspected she was using drugs, but without proof, they couldn’t do anything. Finally, they found a text on her phone that said “bring the needles.” They confronted her and got her into an outpatient treatment program, but she started using again.

Then, Richter says, they got a call from the Baltimore police, who said their daughter had made a drug buy and passed out in her car in the middle of an intersection. Her car had been ransacked and the police took her to a hospital. Richter says he couldn’t afford long-term rehab, but a friend told him, “I hope you can afford a funeral, because that’s your choice.”

She finally realized she needed to get off drugs, and she got the help she needed, Richter says. But then she was arrested by the FBI for being involved in the Centreville heroin ring. Fortunately, the judge didn’t send her to jail, he says, because she was in recovery.

“Don’t fear the local police. They want to help you,” Richter advises other parents. And if you know another family dealing with substance abuse, talk to them, he says. “It could save a life.”

Greg Lannes’ story didn’t have a happy ending. His daughter, Alicia, died of a heroin overdose at age 18 on March 5, 2008. He and his wife were woken up at 5 a.m. that day by the police and EMTs pounding on the door. They found Alicia’s lifeless body lying on the floor downstairs.

Her death was the catalyst that led the Fairfax County police to break up the heroin ring. Alicia’s boyfriend, Skylar Schnippel, was found guilty of supplying the heroin that killed her and was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison.

After living through that nightmare, Lannes and his wife, Donna, vowed to tell Alicia’s story with the hope that it might help other families.

Before getting mixed up with drugs, Alicia had been a stellar student who planned to study medicine. But then things fell apart, and she started hanging around with people who were using drugs. When she was 17, her parents learned that she had been raped three years before and that she was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

This is happening in all neighborhoods, among all demographic groups, Lannes told the CAC. He cited statistics from a survey of FCPS students that found by the time they’re seniors in high school, 67 percent have used alcohol, 38 percent have used marijuana, and 5.3 percent have used crack. Even more disturbing: 20 percent of sixth-graders have tried alcohol and 7.2 percent have tried inhalants.

The survey results also show that many students have had experiences with violence: Nearly 19 percent reported that they’ve been attacked by someone intent on hurting them, he says, and nearly 9 percent have been threatened with a weapon. Almost 5 percent (that’s 3,900 kids) have been raped.

Richter urged the audience to “know your neighbors”—and let them know if you see something suspicious.

Paula King, an intake officer for the Fairfax County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, also spoke at the meeting. she says, there’s been a change in attitude among people in the court system since she started working there 16 years ago. In the past, “it was all about locking them up. Now we are providing more services to these kids. There are diversion programs to keep them out of the courts.”

Intake officers determine how cases should be handled. If a young person and his or her family are cooperative with the police and admit to some kind of wrongdoing, King says, the youth is more likely to be placed in a treatment program rather than be put on trial.

She conducts a meeting every Tuesday at the court for parents who are concerned about their children. The sessions are free, and parents don’t have to register; they don’t even have to give their child’s name.

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