“Heroin addiction ends in one of three ways: you go to jail, get clean, or you die,” said Cathy Iliff.
Her son Christian struggles with an addiction, she said – but also with a legal system that can be indifferent to anyone hooked on narcotics.
She's not alone. Caroline Folker remembers her daughter Kathrine, who died on Aug. 7 this year of a heroin overdose.
“Kathrine and I spoke about it a lot, in the short time she was on it, and she said ‘It’s evil. It’s the most evil thing you can ever imagine,’” Folker said.
Now, Folker is setting up a support group for other parents with children battling addiction, while Iliff searches for options to keep her son alive. She's finding few.
Fresh out of high school in 2014, Kathrine struggled with alcohol dependency, according to her mother Caroline. She checked herself into a rehabilitation facility, moved to a recovery home, and then set out on her own.
Within a week, though, she started drinking again. Offered heroin while drunk in May, she tried the narcotic and was soon addicted.
Fatally pure heroin is now much cheaper than in the past and relatively easy to get. Many young people gain access to the narcotic and quickly become addicted. The strength and availability of the drug has led to an increase in fatal overdoses in the past few years.
On Aug. 7, just shy of her 20th birthday, Kathrine died from a heroin overdose.
“That was it. She was gone,” Folker said.
“[Katherine] knew [dying from an overdose] was a possibility,” Folker said. “We’d been to two funerals for her friends already this year. And she didn’t want to die.”
The epidemic is statewide. Deaths from heroin and painkiller overdoses have now surpassed deaths from car accidents in Virginia. Opiate overdoses killed 728 people in 2014, according to state data. In the last five years, fatal overdoses have increased by 57 percent, killing nearly 3,000 Virginians.
And after a brief reduction in overdose deaths in Fauquier County in 2011 and 2012, the number of deaths is climbing again.
Ten people died from drug overdoses in 2014 alone and more than half of Fauquier's 54 reported overdoses in that year were from opiates.
Folker worried that her daughter had met other addicts and pushers she might not otherwise have been exposed to through the rehab process. These new contacts provided ready access to the narcotic when she relapsed.
“In one way, you feel like, ‘Did we kind of throw her to the wolves?’” Folker said. “She was a very young and naive child when she left.”
Rehab vs. jail
According to Jim Bernat, program manager of the Boxwood Recovery Center in Culpeper, rehab is always better than jail in the long term for treating addiction.
“I don’t think that increases anyone’s risk for using,” Bernat said. “The alternative is going to jail, and there you actually might make new criminal connections.”
Through rehab, addicts can learn about the addiction process, its drivers and destructive lifestyle choices, according to Bernat.
“They may end up with a greater self-diagnosis,” Bernat said. “A lot of people coming in really don’t think they have a problem. For some people, that process takes a couple of tries.”
Iliff's son Christian was arrested in Fauquier County for possession of heroin in December 2014. He was given a chance for probation after which the charges would be dismissed with good behavior.
But according to Iliff, he kept using.
“My son overdosed in February in his bedroom and my daughter and I did CPR on him,” Iliff said. “For close to eight minutes he was without a pulse.”
A week later, he was arrested again. While in jail on the heroin charges, the family received a letter from his therapist letting them know a bed was available at Boxwood for medical detox and then long-term inpatient stay for rehab.
He would be allowed to transfer from the jail to the rehab center had the court approved. But, according to Iliff, he was denied the treatment and held in jail.
“I’m a mom that wants my son to live,” Iliff said.
The issue is not a matter of keeping her son out of jail, she says, but getting him help to combat the addiction. As it is, she'd rather have him in jail than dead.
”But I want him treated, because without treatment there is no hope,” she said.
Kevin Gerrity, deputy public defender for Fauquier, Loudoun and Rappahannock counties, said his clients want to see more options for treatment.
But that won't happen until there is more funding for inpatient treatment programs, he added. There’s been a little improvement over the past few years, he said, but not nearly enough.
“If the client does not have insurance, which many don’t, their options are slim,” Gerrity said.
The cost of staying at the state facility, Boxwood, ranges from about $1,500 for a seven-day detox program, while a 28 day residential program can cost $1,700.
Payment is expected up front but people who need help can sometimes get part of the bill subsidized by the state, though this help isn't always available.
Gerrity' said judges are somewhat restricted by the court system's sentencing guidelines.
Judges use a score card based on those guidelines to determine whether an offender merits an alternative to jail.
“We find that that recommendation isn’t followed as often as it should be,” Gerrity said.
Sometimes judges are faced with a lack of options or funding, Gerrity said. But they are also reluctant to send users to rehab because the facilities provide little or no security. Drug users are not locked in like in a jail.
“I sympathize with our judges,” Gerrity said.
They're pushed to use punishment as a deterrent, he said, but there is a social need for rehabilitation as well.
James Fisher, Fauquier County's Commonwealth’s Attorney, shares this burden too. Prosecutors target both users and dealers of all magnitudes, so treatment options vary just as widely, Fisher said.
“So, it really depends upon the offender,” he said. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.”
There are many treatment programs available, including inpatient facilities like Boxwood, that fall within the scope of his office as well.
“Of course to be successful, you have to be well motivated and you have to really want to succeed in rehabilitation,” Fisher said.
There is movement within the system towards the use of rehabilitation, but it's slow, and depends on which drugs happen to be in vogue, Fisher said.
“I started prosecuting in the late ‘80s and I’ve seen just about every new drug and alcohol program that you could think of come along and the problem still persists,” Fisher said.
Bernat said it isn't helpful to send people into the criminal justice system when what they really need is a chance at treatment.
For Iliff, that chance is critical.
“These are kids’ lives and they’re taking it all too lightly,” Iliff said. “They’re throwing them in jail and then they wash their hands of it.”
Fauquier Times Staff Photo/Randy Litzinger
Moved to action
Caroline Folker's daughter Kathrine was very open about her struggle with heroin addiction before it claimed her life.
To honor Kathrine's memory, Folker and her daughter Lauren will share that spirit of openness with other parents and children in the same situation.
“I think a lot of people out there need help and they don’t know where to go,” Folker said. “If we could help one other family not to go through what we’ve gone through, Kathrine would have wanted that.”