80 area professionals gather for summit on heroin
By Joe Beck
FRONT ROYAL -- Law enforcement officials, medical professionals, social service providers and educators listened with rapt attention Wednesday as the mother of a heroin addict tearfully described her son's overdose death.
Teresa Nelson of Frederick County told the audience of about 80 at the Warren County Public Safety Building that she hoped the story of her son's life and death will spur them to greater efforts to limit the spread of heroin through Northern Virginia communities.
Nelson said nothing can undo the heartbreak she felt when she discovered the lifeless body of her son, Derek Sprouse, 30, in a downstairs bathroom of her home one August morning.
"It's too late. It is," Nelson said toward the end of her 40-minute presentation. "But it's not too late for other mothers and their sons."
The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Virginia and the Northwest Virginia Regional Drug and Gang Task Force hosted the meeting, one of a series being conducted or planned since a spike in heroin-related deaths and overdoses were noticed in the Northern Shenandoah Valley last fall.
Jay Perry, a state police agent and drug and gang task force coordinator, said the numbers have only grown worse this year. Since Jan. 1, at least 20 have died from heroin overdoses and another 100 non-fatal overdoses have been recorded in a region that encompasses Warren, Shenandoah, Clarke, Page and Frederick counties and Winchester, Perry said.
During Thanksgiving week alone, area law enforcement officials responded to five non-fatal heroin overdoses during the seven-day period, Perry said.
The drug and gang task force has recorded 89 heroin-related arrests so far this year, Perry said.
Heroin addiction cuts across a wide swath of the population, Perry said, affecting men and women, teens and those well into their 50s. Some addicts are found strung out in hotels and motels, others in residences and even the bathrooms of fast food restaurants, Perry said.
"A lot of people . . . really want to get off it," Perry said of heroin.
Nelson said her son was one of those who tried to kick the habit and appeared to be having some success in the weeks before his death.
She described the scene at the moment she discovered his body: "I pushed the door open. I saw his face. He was blue. He didn't look right."
Nelson, a nurse, said her efforts to revive him were to no avail.
"Since that day, I've never been the same," she said. "A part of me died that day."
After Nelson spoke, the meeting broke up into three smaller groups focused on prevention, law enforcement and treatment options.
Earlier in the meeting, Shenandoah County Sheriff Timothy C. Carter, who is also the chairman of the drug and gang task force, urged the audience members to think about ways of combining law enforcement with programs in other agencies that offer treatment and prevention.
"Addressing and ultimately eradicating the heroin distribution, addiction, injuries and deaths plaguing our communities require a collective response of resources," Carter said.
U.S. Attorney Timothy J. Heaphy of the Western District of Virginia said he agreed with Carter in declaring, "We surely cannot arrest our way to safer communities."
Osborne Abbey, one of the three small group facilitators, said members of his group concluded that efforts to help addicts shake off the grip of heroin must rely on "evidence-based programs that provide some level of accountability on the part of the providers as well as the clients."
Carter said another heroin "summit" is planned for March "to regroup to evaluate existing efforts and identify new ones."
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or firstname.lastname@example.org