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Students learn about girl's battle with drugs

May 09, 2003|by DON AINES

chambersburg@herald-mail.com

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - There is a code of silence about drug abuse among teenagers and it can prove fatal, according to a mother who lost her daughter earlier this year to a heroin overdose.

"We didn't know the signs. We didn't know the symptoms," said Cindy Robinson of Chambersburg, whose 16-year-old daughter, Jennifer, died of an accidental heroin overdose on Feb. 20.

The Chambersburg Area Senior High School junior was found unconscious in her home that evening and was pronounced dead a short time later at Chambersburg Hospital.

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Enough is Enough, an alliance of drug and alcohol abuse programs, police and other agencies and groups, held two assemblies at the school Thursday to educate students about the community's drug problem. A seminar for parents was held Thursday evening at the school.

Robinson said before the assembly that Jennifer had friends who knew she was using heroin, but they did not tell anyone who could have intervened. Cindy Robinson and her husband, Don, did not recognize the signs that Jennifer had a substance abuse problem.

In the aftermath of Jennifer's death, Robinson said she wanted to help people break that code of silence.

"When they are with their friends, they're like a totally different person," Robinson said.

That is not unusual with adolescents, but those with substance abuse problems take it a step further, according to Pennsylvania State Police Trooper Ed Asbury.

"They usually have two sets of friends. The ones you see them with and their drug friends," Asbury said.

"A lot of it was kind of surreal in a way, because Jen was one of my good friends," sophomore Tyler Newman said after the assembly. He said he was aware that some classmates used drugs such as marijuana, but "I never knew she was on anything that heavy."

Some students said it wasn't that easy to spot someone with a drug problem.

"Unless you do drugs, you probably don't know who does it," said junior Kenton Woodard.

Senior Sharell Wallace said she would see Jennifer holding her stomach in class or sleeping at her desk, "but I didn't know she was on heroin."

As far as what parents should look for, Asbury said the outward signs of heroin abuse can look like something more ordinary.

"The signs are somewhat similar to being sick with the flu for an extended period of time," he said. They may sleep a lot, suffer mood swings and have gastrointestinal problems, he said.

The Robinsons, in fact, suspected Jennifer had appendicitis when she began complaining of stomach problems last year. Cindy Robinson said her daughter suffered from headaches, sleepless nights, nausea and abdominal pains.

Jennifer was hospitalized last fall and went through a battery of tests that uncovered an intestinal problem, but didn't link it to drug abuse, Robinson said. Since becoming part of Enough is Enough, she has become aware of the symptoms.

"We were going through this checklist and Jennifer had half of those, but we didn't know it was associated with drugs," said Robinson, who has worked in the Franklin County Clerk of Courts Office for about 10 years.

"I'd say there's been at least half a dozen fatals ... and countless more that were not fatal," Franklin County District Attorney John F. Nelson said of heroin overdoses in the past five years.

The Franklin County Drug Task Force he heads is partially funded with grants specifically aimed at combating heroin, much of which comes from Philadelphia and Baltimore.

"The deaths from heroin overdoses are just the tip of the iceberg," he said.

Franklin-Fulton Drug and Alcohol Administrator James Rodgers agreed. His agency only deals with those drug and alcohol abusers who are on medical assistance, have no medical insurance or their insurance does not cover drug treatment.

Of the 528 cases his office managed in 2001-02, however, 76 people were there for heroin abuse, a number he said has held steady over the past few years. Those who have insurance often seek help through private treatment programs.

Ami Hooper-Knox, an adolescent outpatient therapist at Roxbury Treatment Center in Shippensburg, Pa., estimated about one-third of the people she sees are there for heroin abuse.

The increasing number of heroin cases is putting a strain on an already overcrowded prison system, with more inmates coming in suffering from withdrawal, according to Nelson, a member of the Franklin County Prison Board.

"We had 13 in April and 10 people the previous month," Warden John Wetzel said. "We just started looking at it because we saw a significant increase."

"Not a whole lot," Wetzel said when asked what the prison is able to do for those going through heroin withdrawal. He said there is "a lot of throwing up. A lot of diarrhea."

Those prisoners are put on a heroin detoxification protocol, he said. Medical personnel check their vital signs several times a day and corrections officers check them twice an hour to make sure they do not go into seizures.

Nelson said he expects charges, including drug delivery resulting in death, to be filed against at least one person in the death of Jennifer Robinson.

A conviction on a charge of drug delivery resulting in death carries a maximum 40-year sentence.

The Robinsons allowed a collection of photographs from Jennifer's short life to be used during the assembly. Looking back, Cindy Robinson said she now sees a difference in her daughter in some of the later pictures.

"You're looking at someone who is really sad compared to the other pictures," she said.

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