Attorney Vince Solano gets thank-you cards at Christmas.
The message, from mothers, fathers and grandparents, is usually the same: “'He's still clean. Thank you so much.”
Solano often refers heroin-addicted clients – most of them teens and young adults – into the county's drug court program in an attempt to save their lives. He estimated that 75 percent of his 40 to 50 drug court clients have survived and stayed in recovery, hence the holiday thank-you notes.
"I put a lot of people in there," Solano said. "It was the best of both worlds. You get clean, and at the end, the case gets dismissed. That is why drug court was a good option.”
It's an option the defense attorney has utilized more frequently during the last 10 years in Kane County, as heroin use has reached what law enforcement and prevention advocates call an "epidemic."
Brought in on Interstate 88 from the West Side of Chicago, heroin has found a new home in Kane County, and settled in for the long haul.
"In my first 10 years, including five as a state's attorney, I'm not sure I ever saw it unless it was a random case in Aurora or Elgin,” said Solano, 45, of Big Rock. “It was rare."
Not rare any more, Solano said, as he knows of 17-year-old girls from St. Charles so hooked they prostitute themselves to drug dealers in Chicago to bring some heroin back home.
"It's so powerful. It overwhelms people," Solano said. "It's not like pot, where you smoke it once a month and never think about it again."
Carrie Thomas, coordinator of the Kane County Drug Rehabilitation Court, and others in law enforcement said the problem in St. Charles, Batavia, Geneva and other Kane County communities has caused a spike in heroin addiction and overdose deaths.
The Kane County Coroner's Office recorded 27 heroin overdose deaths in 2012, up from 11 in 2011, seven in 2010 and 10 in 2009. There have been 12 so far this year.
Thomas has a message for those in more affluent area communities who have a hard time believing heroin addiction is a local problem.
"The time for burying your head in the sand is done," Thomas said. "Heroin is not going to go away because you don't want it here. It's so important for people and parents to be educated to see the warning signs in their kids and also to understand it is an addiction. It has to happen. It's here. You can't pretend it's not."
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Heroin is a depressant – diacetylmorphine – derived from morphine, which comes from opium. It is one of the most addictive drugs, outranked only by nicotine, according to research by the Roosevelt University’s Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy.
More recently, heroin lost its needle-in-the-arm, eww-factor to a purity that allowed it to be sniffed or snorted. Combined with the cost – heroin is cheaper and easier to get than prescription painkillers, Thomas said – and you get soaring addiction and overdose rates.
Solano doesn't know anyone who uses heroin just once. He's had clients who shoplift expensive items and sell them for $50 to get their daily heroin fix. And those with addictions, he said, often face a lifelong struggle against returning to it.
"It's not something you use once," Solano said. "Like you could eat a jelly doughnut and then not eat another one for five years."
The sobering reality of the harm heroin can cause is illustrated in the increasing number of people who have died from an overdose.
Kane County Coroner Rob Russell's office is the convergence point for those who die of a heroin overdose; he cited that as cause of death 27 times in 2012, and 12 times so far this year.
Russell attributes the increase in use to how cheap heroin is, and noted since it's not regulated, a user doesn't know how much actual substance he or she will get per use.
"What we're noticing is a lot of people will be using for a long time, then they decide they want to stop. They go through rehab; then they relapse and use the same amount – and it winds up killing them," Russell said, explaining the spike in overdose deaths.
Russell said he is open to suggestions as to how his office could be more proactive in preventing heroin deaths.
"It is happening to your friends. It is not happening to people far away. It's happening to your neighbors. We need to mastermind with some of the advocacy groups out there as to what can we do to help," Russell said. "We do not know what else we can do if kids are going to look death in the face and still do this stuff."
It's a frustration shared by Kane County Sheriff Pat Perez, who lamented at a recent anti-drug event that no matter how many heroin and drug informational programs he hosts, only a handful of parents attend.
"Educational things are kind of being ignored," Russell said. "I do not know why that is – other than we need to look at a different way of trying to educate people."
Russell is considering emulating Will County Coroner Patrick O'Neil's website, which prominently lists the rise in heroin overdose deaths from six in 1999 to 30 each in 2011 and 2012, and 21 so far this year.
The website includes a video of O'Neil urging young people not to use heroin.
"It's heartbreaking to tell unsuspecting parents that their child has died from a heroin overdose," O'Neil says in the video. "I hope I never have to talk to your mother or father. You only choose to use heroin the first time. After that, your addiction owns you and you could wind up dead. Make the right choice: Choose not to use."
Lea Minalga of St. Charles stressed that message has to go out to youth as much as their parents, and the community needs to support prevention and education efforts.
Minalga founded Hearts of Hope, a local advocacy nonprofit that supports the drug court and provides resources and support for addicts and their families. Her son is a recovering heroin addict.
"You can't say it won't happen to my kid or this only happens to bad kids or because of bad parenting. All families are at risk," Minalga said.
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One effort seeing some success is the Kane County Drug Rehabilitation Court, which allows non-violent drug offenders to have their charges held in abeyance while they complete rehabilitation, pay their fines, get frequent drug tests and have weekly court dates.
A third of the 106 participants are there for heroin.
From 2009 to 2011, 78 people graduated from the drug court, 21 of whom had heroin as their drug of choice. To date, 12 have re-offended, Thomas said.
The program meets three times a week in courtroom 123 at the Kane County Judicial Center.
"Good evening, it's nice to have everyone here,” Kane County Judge Marmarie Kostelny said on a recent Wednesday to the 20 or so drug court participants gathered.
Kostelny called out each person by name and felony case number, greeting all with friendly, personal questions: "How has your summer been?" and "How's the baby?" and "How's your week been?"
They tell her about missing sleep due to teething babies, new jobs, finishing GEDs, or getting raises and promotions.
"I'm 14 months sober, and I'm getting a raise," one said. "I'm just showing up and doing my job."
Kostelny offered encouragement and praise.
"I'm impressed," she said. "Keep staying on track. We want you to be successful."
Nothing is overlooked as Kostelny tracked each on how many meetings they attend, how many clean urine drops they've had and whether their court fines are being paid.
Kostelny is kind – but firm – to the ones who relapse.
"Let's put this behind you and get you back on track," Kostelny said to one she sent to jail on the weekends. "We have to talk about what happened on this relapse. You have to think carefully about what happened. Honesty is critical. If you're not honest, you can't get help."