FORSYTH COUNTY, Ga. — The numbers of drug-related overdoses in young people is alarming, said Forsyth County Sheriff Duane Piper.
In the last two years, there have been 19 drug overdoses in the county — seven so far this year. Of those, 13 were opiate overdoses.
The statistics were released at the inaugural Forsyth County Drug Awareness Summit held Nov. 5 at the Forsyth Conference Center.
A standing-room only audience of parents, children and community members came out to hear from a panel of experts who have firsthand experience as it relates to drugs and young people.
Since 2006, there have been 14 traffic fatalities in Forsyth County of people 21 and under. Three of these involved alcohol and one involved drugs, Piper said.
“We are doing a good job telling our children not to drink and drive, but in sending that message, are we telling them that drugs might be OK?” Piper asked. “In two years, we lost 19 young adults and I haven’t seen one story on those in the media.”
Piper said the response for parents is to speak candidly with children about drugs.
“Get involved with your kids, get to know your kids,” Piper said. “Get in their business. Their business, by definition, is your business.”
If a young person is too hard to control, Piper said to reach out to law enforcement for guidance.
“We’ll show you resources of where to go for help,” he said.
Forsyth County Commissioner Cindy Jones Mills, who helped put together the “Stop Your Kids Before Drugs Stop Them” event, said this is the first of its kind in the county, bringing together the judicial system, school district, law enforcement and drug counseling advocates, including faith-based groups.
Mills said the county has a great community that takes pride in its achievements, but that there are underlying issues, such as drug addiction, that need to be addressed.
“We are thriving and growing and sometimes we get lost in all of that,” Mills said. “There are issues we need to be talking about.”
Mills said a drug coalition is in the works to continue the conversation and be proactive in providing parents with tools such as drug testing and offering resources for parents to get help for their child.
The event was brought about because of social services committee and juvenile justice discussions on drugs in the community, Mills said. In addition, parents kept approaching her to do something.
“There are children who are suffering and parents who don’t know what is going on,” Mills said. “We are doing this for the kids and doing this for the community. We want to be the best we can be.”
Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Bagley called the county’s and nation’s drug use growth an epidemic. He has firsthand knowledge as presiding judge in the county’s drug court.
“Billions of dollars are spent on the care for substance abusers, not to mention the social toll that drugs and alcohol abuse takes on our society,” Bagley said.
Bagley said many times, the families spend a lot of money to send their drug-addicted child to a relative or a rehab center, only to learn that after spending of a good portion of their life savings, the person is using again after a short period of time.
In January, the drug court celebrates 10 years of service. Since its creation, there have been 236 persons who have graduated and about 32 people have been rearrested, a 13 percent recidivism rate. Nationwide, the recidivism rate for drug offenders hovers around 50 percent.
Forsyth’s drug court has seen an increase in prescription, meth and opiate users. The threat of prison, jail sanctions and drug testing forces the users to comply and eventually embrace their new sober lifestyle.
“The drug court participants say that the drug court has actually saved their lives,” Bagley said.
Juvenile Court Chief Judge J. Russell Jackson said that parents are the best prevention for drug use in children.
“You have real power here, don’t be afraid to use it and exercise it,” Jackson said. “Parents are the best anti-drug.”
Jackson said if parents cannot keep up with their child, they can file a complaint in juvenile court and ask for help with intensive drug testing and additional monitoring.
“We have tools to assist you,” Jackson said. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help.”
Speakers at the event warned about alcohol and marijuana use. It’s not harmless and it can lead to stronger drugs, Jackson said.
“Marijuana is a powerful mind-altering drug,” Jackson said. “It’s not regulated.”
Bradley R. Baker, founder and chief executive officer of the Bradley Intervention Center, said in the last three months, there have been 20 families that reached out for help because of alcohol or heroin addiction.
“It could be your child and it is in our community,” Baker said.
Baker said getting engaged and knowing more about the child is the answer. Taking away iPads and cars is not enough.
“The more you try to control with curfews, the more they will push back on you,” Baker said. “You’re feeding the train and you’re feeding and feeding it and finally that train is going to run off the tracks.”
Baker said it takes a community and there are resources out there. The stigma associated with drug addiction has to be shifted, he said.
“We are trying to build a community that no longer worries about the stigma of substance abuse and addiction,” Baker said. “We need to change our mindset here.”
Other speakers in the Drug Awareness Summit included Sherry Ajluni, a parent whose son Brandon Schiff died of heroin overdose; Daniel Krasner of Clinical Solutions Provider; L.C. “Buster” Evans, superintendent of Forsyth County Schools, and former Atlanta Braves pitcher John Smoltz.
Smoltz, 46, said drugs were never pushed on him throughout his life, but he has seen the influence drugs have had on peers and youth.
“What we don’t want is this epidemic going quiet, dormant, underground. We’ve got to expose it,” Smoltz said. “If there’s any battle worth fighting for and if there’s any competition to compete for, it’s competing for our kids.”