LOWER TOWNSHIP — Kathryn Gibson counsels children with drug problems for a living, but what she is seeing lately scares her.
Gibson, one of the speakers at the Lower Township Substance Abuse Symposium on Monday night, said the children are getting younger, have graduated to harsher drugs at an earlier age, and are committing adult crimes to support their habit. Some deal drugs or date drug dealers to keep getting their fix.
Gibson, of Cape Counseling Services, said only 9 percent of her clients were using heroin in 2009. In 2012, it jumped to 27 percent.
“We’re seeing them starting younger. I’m seeing a huge increase in heroin and opiate use. It’s scary. These are kids 18 and under. The crimes they are committing are severe, such as burglaries and home invasions. They’re doing adult crimes at 15 or 16,” Gibson said.
The symposium drew a full house, more than 100 people, to Township Hall. Gibson was just one speaker addressing the growing problem.
Cape May County Prosecutor Robert Taylor said heroin deaths among 18- to 25-year-olds have risen 24 percent in the past year. The county has registered 91 overdoses and 20 deaths from heroin so far this year, including five overdoses last week in the township, he said.
Taylor said law enforcement is doing its job, including 98 arrests during drug sweeps in Wildwood this summer, but he said more education is needed.
“This is a message we need to start getting to our kids, and we need to get it to them as early as fifth, sixth or seventh grade,” Taylor said.
Taylor commended Mayor Mike Beck as one of the few municipal officials tackling the problem. Taylor said he has been criticized by some in the tourist industry for addressing it.
“Lower Township has a substance-abuse problem,” Beck said at the outset of the symposium, “but no more than any other town in South Jersey or New Jersey, and any other mayor or council that denies it has a bigger problem than we do.”
The township last year set up a Substance Abuse Committee that meets monthly and has gotten the local police department and school system involved. Both can help, but most speakers said the issue begins at home or in the neighborhood.
“The answer is not to lock people up. We’re not going to arrest ourselves out of this issue,” Beck said.
Police Chief William Mastriana said by the time teenage drug use gets to the police it’s usually too late to make a difference. Mastriana told parents they are the first line of defense. He urged them to question their children when they act or look different.
Lower Cape May Regional Superintendent Chris Kobik asked the audience how many thought the schools can solve the problem. A few raised their hands.
“You’re wrong. The school can’t change the problem,” Kobik said.
When a student is caught with drugs, and the parent is called, Kobik said a common response is denial from the parent that the drugs belong to their child.
“There has to be a bit of a cultural change, an attitudinal change. There has to be a bit of ownership. If you want change, you need to be the change,” Kobik said.
Pat Devaney, director of Cape May County Human Services, said parents are the first stage of prevention, but schools are important for early intervention. This must be followed by treatment and recovery.
“My goal is better recovery support. They need something when they get out. They need to learn to live life not high,” Devaney said.
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