CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE - A special forum Thursday on the drug epidemic in Cape May County called "Putting a Face on Addiction" had nothing on Wildwood resident Kreni DiAntonio

DiAntonio said she saw the face of addiction firsthand on her dead son lying in a casket after a drug overdose on Dec. 30. DiAntonio was one of several mothers to talk about how they couldn't save their children and how something must be done. She said unconditional love is "not enough to save our children."

The last words DiAntonio heard from her 32-year-son Greg, after he left a drug-rehabilitation center, was that he could beat the addiction.

"Have some damn faith mom. I love you. I can do this," he said in a text two days before he died. DiAntonio said she knows he wanted to, but "the beast," which she calls addictive drugs, was too strong.

"Yes, Greg. I do have faith. Faith that your death will bring life to at least one person," DiAntonio said.

The forum drew more than 150 people and included testimony from those on the front lines of the battle, including parents of overdose victims but also workers at rehabilitation and counseling centers. It included information on how the laws are changing to combat the problem and treat addiction more like a disease than a crime.

DiAntonio's story seemed to be similar to many in the audience. She said her son, a Wildwood Catholic High School graduate, started on pills but that led to becoming "a needle addict," or what DiAntonio called "the big boy drugs." She said junkies are not somebody nobody knows. She said they have parents, wives, husbands, friends and other loved ones.

"The general public needs to know this doesn't just affect the junkie under the bridge," DiAntonio said.

Freeholder Kristine Gabor read some alarming statistics showing an increase in drug use in the county. She said it crosses age groups and economic levels. She said it affects everybody in the addict's life.

"This is an epidemic," said Gabor. "We're not going to solve this tonight. We're not going to solve it next month."

DiAntonio circulated pictures of her son around the room while she spoke about him.

"This was a life cut way too short because of the ugly demons of addiction," she said.

Audience members nodded their heads in agreement as she talked about his normal childhood playing sports, going to the beach and Boardwalk, and getting ice cream. They nodded as she recounted the numerous rehabilitation programs he was in. They nodded as she recalled an intervention planned with 30 close friends that he missed because he was in jail on a drug charge. They nodded when she told a story about him being lost for three days and being found bleeding in the street. They nodded as she described how nasty he would become when she tried to help.

"The signs were all there. Who in this room wants to believe your child is a liar and is doing something potentially deadly?" she asked the audience.

He often was clean and sober for long periods of time but always fell back.

"When an addict isn't using, this addiction, this demon, this dragon, continues to grow. Greg had a zest for life that ultimately was his demise," DiAntonio said.

Kass Foster, a Gloucester County woman who lost her 27-year-old son, Christian, to drugs, spoke about starting the group Parent to Parent to help others in her situation.

The group has helped win funding for drug treatment centers and acts as a support network. Still, she said more must be done.

"It's overwhelming, the deaths that are happening now. We have to become one voice as we've all heard of the power of numbers," Foster said.

Kathleen Dobbs, of Parent to Parent, held up binders full of obituaries of those who died from drugs in the region.

"Go home and email the governor," Dobbs said.

There have been legislative changes, according to Kim Mounce, of Cape Assist, a substance abuse treatment and prevention center in Wildwood. Mounce spoke about state legislation, the Overdose Prevention Act, enacted in May that now grants immunity from prosecution in certain instances when a person calls for medical help during a drug overdose. Mounce also spoke about a drug that can be administered to an overdose victim that can save his or her life.

"The law is in a good place right now. Things are changing in the right direction," Mounce said.

But the good news was tempered by the facts of more drug use among the young. Pat Campbell, of Families Matter, a group in Lower Township, said heroin use is rising among the young. She said they start on pills and find heroin, about $10 a bag, is cheaper and readily available.

"You ask kids why and they typically say, 'Because I'm bored,'" Campbell said.

Lower Township Mayor Mike Beck was there and said his town was having a similar forum, titled Substance Abuse Forum in Lower Township, on Sept. 23, beginning at 6 p.m. at Township Hall in the Villas. Beck said the township has been battling "an invasion of heroin in the neighborhood."

Contact Richard Degener:

609-463-6711

Cape May County by the Numbers

19.3 percent: Third-highest percentage in the state for adults receiving drug treatment. Atlantic County is No. 1 at 20.7 percent, followed by Monmouth County at 19.9 percent

2012: Last survey taken showed heroin and opiates are the drugs of choice

155 percent: The number of users ages 18-24 seeking treatment for heroin in the county rose 155 percent between 2009 and 2011. Only Monmouth and Ocean counties were higher

18: So far this year there have been 80 overdoses and 18 deaths from heroin and opiates in Cape May County

Source: Cape May County