Part II: Heroin’s Damaged Lives

Parents, an addict and an educator speak out

By Michael Turton

This is the second article in a series on the use of heroin and other drugs in Philipstown. Last week’s article provoked a strong reaction in the community regarding the need to address the drug problem openly.

Two events in the past week indicated that the use of heroin and other drugs is a serious issue in this community, one that is gaining a higher public profile. Drug World in Cold Spring joined New York State’s Expanded Syringe Access Program (ESAP) through which pharmacies can sell up to 10 syringes at a time to anyone 18 years or older. The program reduces the risk of disease among those who inject drugs. And, Putnam County District Attorney Adam Levy held a Drug Education Forum at Haldane High School Wednesday (Feb. 19).

Teri and Max

Teri Barr, long-time owner of Hudson Valley Outfitters in Cold Spring, moved to California last fall. She knows about heroin. A recovering alcoholic who has been sober for years, Barr also used heroin in the past. Her son Max, now 18, became addicted to heroin and is now in rehab, also in California. Teri said she first realized something was wrong when Max was about 14 — when money began to disappear from her home.

Max Barr: "Drugs lead to misery and failure." (Photo courtesy of Teri Barr)

Max Barr: ”Drugs lead to misery and failure.” (Photo courtesy of Teri Barr)

In an email to The Paper sent from the rehabilitation center, Max said taking heroin was experimental at first — and “a way to make new friends.” But he said, “It didn’t end up like that.” He said that withdrawals have been terrible but “…trying to deal with the life I destroyed through drug use is the most challenging part of getting sober.”

He knows what he would tell others who are contemplating drug use. “It’s not fun. It may look it … but all drugs lead to is misery and failure.” He will soon finish his rehabilitation program and plans to attend community college in the fall. The center’s after-care program will require him to call in twice a week.

Asked if she feels responsible for her son’s addiction Teri responded, “Of course — it’s hard not to.” Attempts to get their son help cost her and her ex-husband “hundreds of thousands of dollars.” Their efforts included sending Max to a wilderness-based leadership camp in the Adirondacks and later a therapeutic boarding school in Massachusetts. Both proved ineffective. According to Max they lacked “seriousness and reality.” His rehabilitation experience in California has been much better.  “His outlook is good now,” Teri said.

Teri also has advice for her peers. “Parents have to persevere. It’s important to talk about (drug use) — not just shove it under the rug … the stigma about addiction has to change.” She said that one book helped her immensely and she strongly recommends it to other parents; Don’t Let Your Kids Kill You: A Guide for Parents of Drug and Alcohol Addicted Children by Charles Rubin.

Tough love

Barb Rifenburg-D’Alessio is a parent whose son and daughter, now in their 20s, attended Haldane. While she faced many challenges as a parent she said that heroin use was not one of them. “I know kids who have struggled with heroin … but I’ve been very lucky,” she said. “I think people lose sight of the fact that you have to be a parent. My approach was always a very tough love – but there was also mutual respect.”

Rifenburg-D’Alessio believes in the “it takes a village to raise a child” philosophy. Her “tough love” extended to kids who came to hang out in her house. “Kids have to make choices. They need to understand that there’s a cause and an effect … they have to be accountable. You’re still a child if you are 18 and in my home.”

She points to the lack of a supervised “hangout” for young people as a problem in Cold Spring. “Growing up in Tivoli, we had a coffee house, located in a church building. Students ran it but there was adult supervision.” She believes that such a facility empowers kids. “It would be really good to have something like that (in Philipstown).” Monitoring is vital, she said, because coffee houses and teen centers can also attract undesirables.

Haldane’s principal weighs in

Heroin is a society-wide problem and high school students are not immune. Asked what level of concern prompts action at Haldane, Principal Brian Alm said, “We try to get involved at any level of concern, from confidential counseling up through disciplinary action.” Involvement can extend beyond traditional school boundaries. Alm said it would be easy to “turn a blind eye” to incidents outside the school but that “…we tend to reach beyond normal … school control, without stepping on the responsibilities of parents.”

Haldane High School Principal Brian Alm (File photo by M. Turton)

Haldane High School Principal Brian Alm (File photo by M. Turton)

He said when substance abuse by students off campus is reported that “we try to link families up with area resources,” including sometimes hosting initial meetings between support agencies and the family.

If a student is caught using drugs on campus Alm said a 30- to 60-day suspension is imposed. A qualified counselor must provide a substance abuse evaluation before the student can return to school.

Surveys of students in grades eight through 12 regarding drug, alcohol and tobacco use are conducted biennially in local school districts by the Carmel-based Putnam County Communities that Care Coalition (PCCCC). Results from 2008 through 2012 confirm the use of heroin at Haldane and other schools.

Until this month Haldane did not release the survey data but Alm said the information was not ignored. “I have made it a matter of personal policy to share the results of each survey, in detail, with my class parents group each year that they come out,” he said.  “We have discussed the results at length and in depth.

“Heroin is genuinely a concern” at Haldane, Alm said. He said there is a perception among many students that it is a “big leap” from prescription drug use to heroin and that teenagers and adults alike envision needles and mainlining when it comes to heroin. “The fact is that users who try it for the first time snort the drug in powder form; truly a small jump from doing the same with a crushed prescription pill.”

While there is disagreement as to whether or not marijuana is a “gateway drug” that can lead to using heroin, Alm clearly sees it as a problem. He finds it troubling that students, “… believe that their parents would be more upset to find them in possession of cigarettes than marijuana,” a statement that is confirmed by PCCCC survey data.

Alm believes that one of the school’s most successful prevention efforts has been through students helping their fellow students. “In recent years, we have had a peer leadership program in place, and (we are) working to expand the program in the middle school,” he said. Haldane also partners with Arms Acres, a rehab facility in Carmel, hosting recovering teen addicts who speak with Haldane students. “(Based on) my informal assessment, this has had the greatest impact.”

Ironically, Alm believes that the pleasant, small-town life enjoyed by Philipstown residents may contribute to the local drug problem. “The pattern identified by students in your first article — where ‘latch-key’ kids are most affected — is certainly true from my observations,” he said. “I think parents sometimes over-rely on our safe, sleepy town to manage idle time and students’ extra-curricular activities.”

Parents not wanting to hear bad news from other parents may also be a factor. Alm said that he often gets reports of parents becoming defensive when their peers exercise the “it takes a village” approach, holding young people (other than their own children) accountable for their choices. “As a community we have to move beyond this — taking the necessary risks with our adult friendships in order to help our young people. If you see something, say something,“ he said, adding that if necessary, the school can help in such situations by serving as a buffer between families.

“Overall,” Alm said, “what is most effective is an open partnership with parents — and early intervention.”

The next article in this series will deal with law enforcement and the courts as well as awareness and rehabilitation programs.

6 thoughts on “Part II: Heroin’s Damaged Lives

  1. What a great community effort! Thank you Mike Turton and for continuing to report on this complicated and historically difficult topic in such a fair and responsible way.A big bravo to everyone brave and moved enough to be interviewed. Teri, Max and Barb, you did a good thing here. A heartfelt thanks to Haldane High School Principal Alm for his candor and efforts to push this difficult conversation forward in the class parent meetings and in this article. And finally a big shout out to Haldane for accommodating the Drug Forum on Wednesday. The last-minute scheduling of the event during a school break speaks to the urgency of the crisis — our community appreciates your responsiveness and efforts!

  2. Applause to Mike Turton for your reporting. Teri, thank you for the courageous gift you gave to this community by speaking of your struggle. It is heartwarming to see Max looking so healthy and happy.

  3. I read the article but did not see any information on the facts that addiction is a disease. Maybe they discussed that in the first article. I also don’t think kids with drug problems should be given suspensions. Kids want to belong and be loved not rejected. Teri is a kind and loving human being and a great mother. Addiction has nothing to do with parenting. It is a disease and we need to start treating it that way. May the Great Spirit shine on Teri and her son!

  4. Thank you for this article. And my heartfelt gratitude to Max especially for his private and public acts of courage.

    Heroin is not a new problem in New York State. It has deep roots. It was a problem at the high school I attended in Yonkers. I graduated in 1968. A statement was made in the first installment of this series that was as true when I was a student as it is today: Every . . . kid in town knows where to get heroin.

    Ponder that sentence for a moment.

    There are three things I know about drugs:

    — There is nothing good about an addiction to getting high, irrespective of the drug.
    — Addicts need treatment not jail.
    — Illegal drugs should be aggressively purged from a community.

    On the first two: an addict who does not want to get sober won’t. But community, family and one-on-one support and acceptance is essential. It can be the tipping point to getting sober.

    On the third: while we are publicly asking these weighty questions about addiction, we must also ask candid questions about enforcement. Students in my high school laughed over the fact they could buy drugs on the same street corner and parking lot, and from the same person, over and over, without being discovered.

    Is it different in Cold Spring and Putnam? I would be surprised.

    Just as an addiction treatment program is not a substitute for home education, government education programs are not a substitute for getting drugs off our streets.

  5. I need to clarify a point regarding this article. In describing Barb Rifenburg-D’Alessio’s views on the need for a youth center I wrote: “Monitoring is vital, she said, because coffee houses and teen centers can also attract undesirables.”

    Barb didn’t use the word “undesirables” — it was part of my interpretation of what she said. She sent me the following comment via email, clarifying her remarks:

    “Every young person has inherent value, every person is worth helping. Security and monitoring are important at youth centers because unfortunately they can sometimes attract people who don’t have the kids’ best interests at heart. But that is no reflection on the value and worth of any young person who happens to be there, whether they are struggling to overcome addiction or not. The community does need a safe and supportive place for young people to gather. That need should be part of a larger community conversation.”