Terrified that her heroin addict son’s escalating drug use would soon kill him, one Maryland mother took a painful and drastic step to get him off the street: She set him up with the police.
The woman tipped authorities that she was about to go for a drive with her young adult son, who’d be in the passenger seat with drugs, says Michael Beach, the chief public defender in Charles County, Maryland. Acting on the tip, a law enforcement officer stopped the vehicle and arrested the young man for allegedly carrying drug paraphernalia with trace amounts of an illegal controlled substance.
As the opioid epidemic rages across the country, some desperate parents of addicts are taking the extreme step of turning their own adult or teenage child in to the police to prevent him or her from overdosing, perhaps fatally. For a parent, having an addict child jailed “gives you a chance to take a breath,” says Romas Buivydas, vice president of clinical services for Spectrum Health Systems Inc., a private nonprofit that provides drug treatment services to people who are incarcerated or on parole or probation in five states. “In jail, they’ll be safer than they would be on the streets.” And some addicts who have spurned treatment will change their mind after spending time locked up, Buivydas says.
A Viable Option
Delivering your son or daughter into police custody is a severe but rational measure for distraught parents who’ve exhausted other options, addiction clinicians say. “I know parents [of people who went into treatment] who say if they hadn’t turned their kids in to the police, their kids would be dead now,” says Deni Carise, chief clinical officer at Recovery Centers of America, which has addiction treatment centers in four northeast states. “For a lot of parents, going to the police is a matter of getting their child off the street so he doesn’t die.”
For some parents of addicts, turning their child in to authorities is a matter of protecting themselves or others, says Tina Muller, program manager for the family wellness department at Mountainside Treatment Center in Canaan, Connecticut. “If an opiate addict is being abusive and creating safety issues, threatening or engaging in violence and bringing drugs into a home where younger siblings may find them, you need to call the police,” Muller says. While opioid addiction gets the most attention because it’s currently claiming the most lives, some parents of people addicted to cocaine and other drugs also turn their sons or daughters in to police.
A Deadly Scourge
Though it’s an agonizing step for parents, turning one’s own child in to law enforcement to save his or her life makes sense in the context of the deadly opioid epidemic, clinicians say. In 2015, drug overdoses driven by the opioid scourge – including heroin, which is illegal, as well as prescription pain relievers such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine and fentanyl – were the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S., according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine. There were 20,101 fatal overdoses related to prescription painkillers and 12,990 stemming from heroin, according to ASAM.
Putting an addict in jail may temporarily prevent him or her from becoming a grim statistic, but it won’t guarantee immediate treatment. Throughout the U.S., there are more than 3,000 drug courts, which refer people to treatment instead of jail, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. Drug courts put about 150,000 people annually into treatment. Meanwhile, there are about 650,000 people incarcerated in local jails at any given time, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit that produces research on the criminal justice system and advocates against mass incarceration. “We realize we’re just scratching the surface of meeting the need,” says Chris Deutsch, a spokesman for the NADCP.
The need for drug treatment also outpaces resources in juvenile detention facilities. There are 409 drug courts nationwide in juvenile courts, and there were 50,821 people in juvenile detention in October 2014, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Some local jails have treatment programs apart from drug court, but there are usually waiting lists.
This dearth of resources shouldn’t stop parents from turning to law enforcement if they believe their child or others are in imminent danger, clinicians say. “If your child’s life is at risk or your safety and that of your family’s [is] at risk, it might be the only option,” Muller says. Experts say parents considering taking this step should keep these things in mind:
Be sure you’ve exhausted every option. You may think you’ve tried everything, but before you call the police, make certain you’ve explored every potential resource to try to get your son or daughter help, Muller says. “I would definitely recommend that parents and families seek advice from local treatment centers,” she says, as treatment clinicians may be aware of resources parents don’t know about. If your child is a juvenile, check with local and state social services officials and authorities at the school your child attends, and ask if there are resources such as counseling or therapy for addicts, she says. Some school districts have alternative schools that can help students with addiction issues, Muller says. If they haven’t already tried one, parents can try to stage an intervention, in which relatives and friends confront a person to describe how his or her drug use is affecting them and urge them to seek help.
Explain to law enforcement officers why you are turning in your child. Once you’ve decided you have no other recourse, call the police to explain why you’re about to turn your child in, says Howard Samuels, owner and chief executive officer of The Hills Treatment Center, an alcohol and drug rehabilitation facility in Los Angeles. “You want the police to know that you want the person arrested because he or she is out of control because of drugs,” Samuels says. “That’s the way to handle it. You don’t want to call 911 and have the cops come in with guns drawn.”
Don’t assume your son or daughter will be in jail for long. The amount of time someone spends in jail varies depending on the charge, the person’s prior criminal record, if any, and local statutes. Someone who’s arrested for a first offense on a charge that doesn’t involve violence or a weapon may be incarcerated for a brief time, overnight or maybe even a matter of hours, Samuels says. Let your child’s lawyer know what’s going on and ask him or her what treatment resources the local criminal justice system provides, he says. Even a short stay in jail could convince some addicts to seek treatment.
Seek support for yourself and other family members. Just as addicts in recovery need a support system, so do their loved ones, Buivydas says. “This is an epidemic” that affects not only addicts, but those close to them, he says. Parents and other relatives need to know they are not alone, and they need to learn strategies for supporting the addict without enabling him or her, he says. Resources include clinical licensed therapists and support groups, such as Nar-Anon Family Groups, which is similar to the Alcoholics Anonymous model in that it uses 12 steps to help people deal with their feelings about their loved one’s addiction. “Counselors can help, and being part of a group in which you hear from other people who are going through similar experiences is invaluable,” Buivydas explains. “There’s a feeling of fellowship.”