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Port Counseling Center Wants to Help Protect Children From Drug ‘Epidemic’

Agnes Lasetchuk, executive director of Port Counseling Center, wants the parents of Port Washington to know that there are definite steps they can take to protect their children from what has been called an “epidemic” of heroin and opiate abuse in Nassau County.

According to Port Washington Police Department’s Deputy Chief Ronald De Meo, “There is an increase in heroin use generally on Long Island, particularly on the North Shore,” although cocaine, marijuana, and alcohol abuse remain among their top concerns.

Earlier in January, while in the process of two police calls (family problems and vehicular violations) officers also arrested the defendants for criminal possession of a controlled substance.

Authorities are particularly concerned about heroin because it has become very cheap, very easy, and almost chic to obtain. “In the late ’60s, heroin was considered a ‘dirty’ drug — it used needles, it had side effects,” explained De Meo. “Now, kids can buy “decks,” wrapped up in a tiny piece of paper, and snort one, for just $10 to $15, compared with $85 to $100 for a gram of cocaine.”

Lasetchuk is concerned that “prescription drugs are becoming the gateway to heroin use.” Kids can easily get hold of prescription painkillers like OxyContin or Percocet from their own or their friends’ families’ medicine chests. “They’ll just ask to use the bathroom, you’ll say ‘Of course you may,’ then they go in and empty pills into their pockets.” And kids are clever: “They might not take them all, just 3 or 5, and the adult thinks they’ve miscounted” if and when they discover the loss. “Then (the kids) have ‘pharm parties,’ where they put all the pills in a bowl – like candy!”

Lasetchuk warns that “children abusing prescription drugs think it must be safe because a doctor has prescribed it, so how dangerous could it be? The problem is, children are still growing, still developing, and their livers and kidneys, especially, can be severely damaged.”

Lasetchuk adds that “the Emergency Room doctors tell us, when kids come in, the doctors have no idea what the overdose is from,” in part because the kids don’t know, themselves, what they’ve taken.

Another danger is that even after just one exposure, a person can be hooked. Dr. Wayne Rothwell, director of Children’s and Adolescent Services at South Oaks Hospital in Amityville, has pointed out that “Once you try opiates – just once! – you will never get a high like that again. But people keep looking for it for the rest of their life.”

Lasetchuk advises parents that children can be very clever. “They will hide drugs, not in their room, where you are looking for them, but in your own room, maybe at the back of a drawer.”

Deputy Chief De Meo gives the Port Washington School District “quite a bit of credit” for being pro-active in combating drug and alcohol abuse, pointing out that “we have constant communication with the superintendent and board members, and we have had a police officer assigned fulltime to the school district, since the 1980s,” in addition to two full-time narcotics officers in the department. “We are one of the few police departments that has had that.”

Detective Tony Guzzello, the department’s school liaison officer, points out that the assistant principals at the middle school and high school are part of the solution: “People ask why there are 4 A.P.s – I tell them they’re there for a reason. They’re a great resource.”

Both Lasetchuk and Guzzello advise parents to be vigilant; to have family dinners as often as possible; to know their child’s friends, and their child’s routines, and to notice if there are any changes in their routine, friends, or grades; to notice if they are acting particularly secretive; and, as soon as they notice any such changes, to not hesitate about getting involved. “Put your foot down,” says Lasetchuk. “Be a parent, and not a friend. Say, ‘You don’t look well, we’re going to the doctor, and we’re doing a home urine test whether you like it or not.’ You can get a home test kit from CVS.”

Lasetchuk is convinced that if parents could see the situation without the stigma of “drugs,” they might be better able to help their child. “If they could see it like (it was) a cancer — anyone can develop it, we don’t know why, it just strikes out of the depths and we can’t prevent it – then they might be more observant, more involved, more intrusive” and more pro-active. Perhaps then, she says, parents would be better able to act before it is too late.

“It is a hard thing,” says Lasetchuk, “asking parents to open their mind that a beautiful, active, high-achieving kid can start using opiates, but it can happen.”

The Safety and Substance Abuse Task Force is presenting a community panel discussion on “What You Don’t Know Can Harm Your Child” on Tuesday evening, Jan. 26 at Schreiber High School Auditorium. Experts from inside and outside the district will speak, and then break out into sessions for elementary, middle, and high school parents. Panelists will include guidance professionals and health teachers but also representatives from the Port Washington Police Department, DAYTOP treatment center, and an emergency room physician. The program will begin promptly at 7 p.m.