My son, Justin Matthew Wolfe, should have turned 24 years old in June of this year. However, on December 19, 2012, Justin’s young life ended as a result of a heroin overdose. He was only 21 years old and a student at Temple University in Philadelphia at the time of his death.
Justin began experimenting with alcohol at the age of 15, at which time I became an advocate in our township for the prevention of underage drinking. Unbeknownst to me, during his senior year in high school, Justin started smoking marijuana and experimenting with various drugs. He graduated to Percocet, OxyContin and then heroin during his college years.
Although I knew of his Percocet usage and consequently put him into an outpatient rehab, I did not learn of his Oxy and heroin addiction until after his death. Justin informed his doctors of his heroin usage, but the doctors could not apprise me of this fact due to the HIPAA laws.
For this reason, I testified before a 2013 Congressional Subcommittee, advocating for parents of drug-addicted children across the country regarding changing the HIPAA laws for mental disorders and addiction in hopes of raising greater public awareness. I am a strong proponent for parents obtaining a Power of Attorney for their young adult son or daughter so they can be told of their child’s medical condition – information that would otherwise be withheld due to HIPAA and medical regulations. It is another line of defense in the fight to save our children from a devastating epidemic that distorts an individual’s rational mental faculties.
I was not aware of the signs and symptoms of opiate usage, so I formed a group called Squash the Secret to increase awareness among parents to the dangers of heroin/opiate abuse. Parents and loved ones are educated about the visual and subtle signs of drug addiction in hope that they can prevent more tragedies, and so their children will be able to live fulfilling lives and the disease of addiction will be contained to the fullest extent possible.
In response to this growing epidemic, I also joined with the Samost Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Southern New Jersey to form Right in Our Backyard, a community awareness program focusing on the prevention of opiate addiction. The program was developed to increase awareness of the problem in the community in order to prevent addiction and addiction-related deaths. Our aim is to keep our youth healthy and our parents armed with the knowledge to make smarter decisions.
Our two-hour panel presentation is structured for teens and their parents. The five panelists include an addiction specialist, a member of law enforcement, a young adult in recovery, a parent who lost her child to addiction and me. Parents and teens are educated about the signs and effects of addiction, ways to seek help, and tools to get out of uncomfortable situations. Disposal methods for prescription narcotics are discussed. Suggestions are also made on how to begin the discussion with someone who might be taking drugs.
Chief of Police J. Scott Thomson, Camden County Police Department, Camden, New Jersey, shared his thoughts on the efforts of this program:
Thank you for remaining committed to battling this epidemic. The resolve of folks like you . . . and scores more of loved ones who have endured similar anguish are inspiring to law enforcement and government. It ensures we remain focused on addressing this non-discriminating, rapidly spreading disease. Through these efforts, we have quickly become aware that arrest is not the cure and are committed to partnerships for viable solutions. Like most societal issues, there isn’t a silver bullet; but through education and awareness, we can begin to ensure the proper placement of this modern day plague on the conscience of the people. Action will achieve results.
Since Justin died, I have forged ahead to educate and bring awareness of this problem to other families, so they are not caught off-guard as I was. Though I was involved with Justin and knew most of his friends and his activities; though I disciplined him, grounded him and provided him with the necessary psychological and medical support; though I constantly stressed abstinence from alcohol and drugs, it was all to no avail. As a parent, I thought that discipline would prevent the usage of any substances. I imposed punishments and sanctions, but that never had any effect on Justin’s silent internal addiction.
It is my hope that at some vulnerable point in the future, one or more of the attendees of Right in Our Backyard will think about what they have learned and make a choice that will save their child’s life.
Gregg Wolfe is a resident of Camden, New Jersey, and is the president and owner of Kaplan, Leaman & Wolfe Court Reporting and Litigation. Gregg has testified before a Congressional Subcommittee in order to modify the HIPAA laws that prevent disclosure to parents. He has made it is his goal to bring awareness, education and prevention of opiate/heroin abuse. You may contact Gregg on the Squash the Secret website, squashthesecret.net.