As a child, state Rep. LaShawn Ford (8th) said he watched his mother struggle with heroin addiction.
“My mother was young when I was born and to this day she still struggles with heroin use,” Ford said in a recent interview. “My grandmother adopted me and raised me since birth, because my mother could not stop using drugs. And even though we got her into rehab programs, over the years her addiction continues.”
At an Aug. 31 press conference, healthcare professionals, nonprofits executives and substance abuse experts joined Ford as he announced the creation of the West Side Heroin Task Force. The press conference, Ford said, coincided with International Overdose Awareness Day, an annual event that’s commemorated all over the world.
Last year, the 44-year-old state legislator helped pass House Bill 0001, also known as the Heroin Crisis Act, which in part would treat heroin addiction as a health problem and not a criminal act.
Gov. Bruce Rauner originally vetoed the bill, but lawmakers were able to get a majority vote to override the veto and pass it into law.
“The only thing that’s left is getting money to fund the bill. I urge the governor to fund this bill and help stop the flow of heroin in Cook County by helping us stop it on the West Side,” added Ford. “If the governor really wants to reduce heroin use in Chicago he will fund this bill.”
Rauner was unavailable for comment.
“When we help end the flow of heroin on the West Side, we help keep it from flowing to the South Side and south suburbs,” Ford said. “Ignoring the West Side is like a fire fighter putting a fire out in part of the house, but leaving the rest of the house burning.”
Ford’s task force comprises a range of stakeholders, including healthcare professionals, nonprofit executives, substance abuse experts and community advocates.
Dr. Sonia Mehta, CEO, president and chief medical officer for Loretto Hospital in Austin, is among the task force members.
“Loretto Hospital has comprehensive behavioral health and addiction programs and is the only hospital on the West Side that has comprehensive inpatient and outpatient services for heroin addiction,” Mehta said, adding that the hospital also has a 24-hour crisis prevention service and a residential rehab program for patients who have overdosed.
According to Mehta, the five West Side neighborhoods affected the most by heroin overdoses are East and West Garfield Park, North Lawndale, Austin, and Humboldt Park.
In 2015, Jackie Collier, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, said her agency removed 1,311 children in Cook County from parents due to drugs. And 45 percent of those children came from the West Side, she said.
“We’re talking about infants being born with drugs in their system and children being exposed to drugs at home,” said Collier, who noted that DCFS is seeking a federal grant to build a residential drug facility on the West Side.
“The Mothers in Recovery Program would be a facility where mothers can live with their children while getting treatment,” said Collier. “We recognize that separating children from their mothers can have a devastating effect on the child.”
Jamelia Hand, an addiction counselor on the West Side, said she too had a parent addicted to heroin.
“Even with the education, knowledge and experience I have it was not enough to save my father. From the moment I was born I knew my dad loved me. I remember my dad would comb my hair, cook for me and help me pick out my school clothes,” recalled Hand. “When I was 6-years-old my father was robbed and shot, but he lived despite the bullet being left inside him.”
Hand said her father’s addiction to pain killers, which he was taking to cope with the pain of the gunshot wound, would eventually turn into an addition to heroin.
“I can remember waking one day from a nap and finding him sitting on the back porch. I tapped him and he fell down the stairs. He was still in an upright position but he could not hear me,” Hand said. “I remember hearing a funny noise come out his mouth and his skin felt funny.”
Hand said her father’s addiction worsened over the years until, one day in 2010, she got a call that he had died.
“It was a call I had been preparing for all of my life,” she said. “When someone lives a risky life you expect to get a call.”