At Atlantic County town hall, confronting South Jersey’s deadly heroin epidemic

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 Margaret Pancoast holds a picture of her 25-year-old son, Brendan, who died last year after battling addiction for nearly half of his life. (Joe Hernandez/WHYY)

Margaret Pancoast holds a picture of her 25-year-old son, Brendan, who died last year after battling addiction for nearly half of his life. (Joe Hernandez/WHYY)

More than a hundred South Jerseyans filled the front rows of a theater at Atlantic Cape Community College to express sadness, frustration, and anger over what authorities are calling an “epidemic” in the state: high rates of opioid and heroin addiction and overdose.

“People are dying day by day here with this epidemic of heroin use, and we can’t seem to put a lid on it,” said Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, D-Atlantic, who organized the Tuesday meeting.

“When I was growing up, when I was in high school … nobody even talked about [heroin] because of the needles and things like that,” he said. “But today, it’s very well accepted, and once they get hooked on it, it’s hard to get off.”

Last year, Atlantic County had the highest per capita rate of fatal heroin overdoses in the state, according to a report in the Press of Atlantic City.

Experts say many addicts start by taking opioids, such as prescription painkillers, and move on to heroin, which is cheaper and more easily accessible in South Jersey urban centers including Atlantic City.

“It’s affecting Main Street America,” Mazzeo said, “and we gotta put a stop to it.”

‘I wish I took a picture when he was in the coffin’

The meeting began with several testimonials from women whose children had died after becoming addicted to heroin.

Margaret Pancoast recalled her son, Brendan, as a “great kid” with mental health issues who was in and out of rehab since age 13.

Pancoast thought Brendan was safely on his way to recovery in a nearby halfway house last year when, on Sept. 12, she got a stark phone call from the facility where he had been staying.

She described it this way:

“‘Are you Margaret Pancoast?'”

“I said, ‘yes, I am.'”

“‘Is Brendan Pancoast your son?'”

“I said, ‘Yes, he is.'”

“‘He committed suicide. You need to go to the morgue and identify his body.'”

In spite of Brendan’s popularity in the community and participation in sports, the 25-year-old eventually succumbed to his heroin dependence.

Pancoast, who said any family could be thrown into disarray by addiction, now wants to educate others about how to recognize and deal with the disease.

“I’d like to show Brendan and his skateboarding and his different activities he did,” she said. “You know, I almost said I wish I took a picture when he was in the coffin to show, like, this is what happens. This is the reality of it. You can’t play with it.”

Pancoast’s childhood friend from Brigantine, Barbara Stefanski, endured the same struggle with her 26-year-old daughter, Kelly, who died six months ago.

“Everybody didn’t want to talk about it [because of] the stigma,” she said.

Stefanski said that because addiction is still not universally accepted as an illness, it had been difficult to talk about Kelly’s 10-year struggle with addiction even with people in her social circle.

“All my friends were talking about their kids in high school and this and that,” she said. “And here I am dealing with, ‘Can she get into this rehab? Can she get into that rehab?'”

Solving the problem

Eric Scheffler, a recently retired lieutenant from the Atlantic City Police Department, underscored a lack of funding as one reason the epidemic has taken hold throughout South Jersey.

Seven years ago, the police department had a staff of 428, he said.  Today, there are just 285.

“Law enforcement is doing the best they can to fight crime, to make the arrests,” Scheffler said, adding that a change in philosophy toward addicts is needed before any progress is possible.

“Our hands are tied behind our backs in a lot of ways because [drug use] is a criminal act.”

Two other panelists who run recovery programs in South Jersey also bemoaned a lack of state funds for drug addiction treatment.

Alan Oberman, the CEO of John Brooks Recovery Center in Atlantic City, said the share of funding his facility gets per day is what a well-off couple might spend going out to dinner one night.

Other hurdles highlighted by the audience and the panelists included a lack of drug education and a plodding response by law enforcement.

Mazzeo credited Gov. Chris Christie with being proactive in signing bills to help addicts overcome their disease, but said he hoped the meeting would give him ideas from people in the thick of addiction that he could take back to the Legislature.

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