HAMILTON, Ohio — Rachel Snelbaker fought the lonely battle against her daughter's heroin abuse for years, trying to get her into treatment and trying to track her down when she went missing to use drugs.
It ended suddenly and sadly when the 21-year-old died after a heroin overdose four months ago.
"Nobody wants to think that it's going to be their child," Snelbaker said. "That day, everything changed in my life forever."
Now, working alongside others whose lives have been torn apart by heroin, she's fighting back against the scourge.
Multiple efforts are underway in southwest Ohio's Butler County, where Snelbaker lives and where this year's heroin-related deaths are already running at a pace far ahead of last year's alarming 55 dead.
Some are modeled after anti-heroin campaigns mounted in other states, with town halls, Facebook pages, and poster-waving rallies with simple messages such as: "Honk If You Hate Heroin!"
One recent night, Snelbaker joined Tammie Norris, whose daughter just emerged from drug treatment incarceration, at a meeting of the Butler County Opiate Abuse Task Force, a loosely knit group of dozens of social services officials, addiction experts, educators, parents of addicts and other community activists that started meeting late last year.
"I think everybody recognizes that the problem is bigger than what we thought it was," said Susan Cross Lipnickey, an attorney and a Miami University associate professor leading the sessions. "It is a 360-degree problem. It is impacting everybody."
Lipnickey set up participant teams to strategize, including educational door hangars, lobbying lawmakers, and organizing school and community forums.
"We can't change the world overnight, but we can begin to make incremental changes," said Lipnickey, who said the local effort in this community about 25 miles north of Cincinnati can follow approaches used in northern Kentucky.
There, Dr. Jeremy Engel, seeing the accelerating rise of heroin overdoses in the St. Elizabeth Healthcare system, helped create the Northern Kentucky Heroin Impact and Response Workgroup in 2012. It includes business leaders, treatment experts, law enforcement representatives and concerned residents.
It pushed successfully for Kentucky's new law last year expanding availability of naloxone, a heroin overdose antidote credited with saving lives if administered quickly. Ohio this year passed a similar law. The Kentucky measure was on an ambitious list of goals in a detailed plan for preventing overdose deaths, and for offering more addiction treatment, family support, education and youth outreach.
Van Ingram, executive director of the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy, called the plan "a blueprint for communities across the Commonwealth to develop their own response."
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said grassroots efforts, "community by community, neighborhood by neighborhood," will be crucial: "We can't arrest our way out of the problem." He and Gov. John Kasich have launched initiatives to spur drug discussions around the state.
In the St. Louis area, authorities have organized nearly 50 town halls in three years and say they are seeing signs of progress after a steep rise in heroin overdose deaths over the past decade.
"It's going to take some time to turn it around," said Jared Opsal, public awareness specialist for the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse in St. Louis. "But we're seeing some progress."
The sessions organized by the agency cover prevention efforts and resources, usually with law enforcement, school, and community representatives. The agency created an online site called "Not Even Once" aimed at children and has run bus and radio ads.
"Especially if they can get on it early, they can save lives," Opsal said of community efforts. "Not to sound hyperbolic, but that's what it's really about."
The Butler County task force hopes to have a large forum later this spring, while Norris and her childhood friend Candy Murray Abbott, whose son used heroin for years until stopping last summer, continue to push their own Heroin Control campaign. They have organized demonstrations in Hamilton.
They started a Facebook page to allow families and people battling heroin addiction to network and share information, and realized they weren't alone.
"Even though I knew it, I couldn't admit it," said Norris. "You're in denial. If I could buy a house in Denial World, I would just go there and live."
The two women talk of starting a nonprofit support organization. Even though their own children appear to be on the right path for keeping heroin out of their lives, they don't plan to stop.
"We're mothers, and there's always going to be another mother out there who needs help," Norris said. "We do it because we know how lonely it is."
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