NEW YORK — In the opening moments of ABC's "20/20" on Friday, a 21-year-old blonde named Ashley says in her suburban Minneapolis bedroom, "I don't look like a heroin addict."
It's a pointed introduction to an hourlong special about the phenomenon of suburban youngsters being targeted by drug dealers as consumers of a potent form of heroin that doesn't need to be injected.
"I've never done anything that matters to me as much," said newsman Chris Cuomo, who's been at ABC for a decade. The report focuses on Ashley (no last names are used), Dylan and Justin, three young people from the Minneapolis area struggling with addiction.
Dylan is one of four brothers and becomes a dealer. Justin did jail time for robbery when he lived in Portland, Maine. By the end of the special, two of the characters are shown doing well with their recovery while the third essentially – and ominously – disappears from ABC's view.
The special is unusual in its access: Ashley drives with Cuomo to a rough section of Minneapolis where she buys drugs, and Justin is seen smoking a large spliff only hours before turning himself in for a jail sentence.
Some of it, such as Justin's drug use, is recorded on flip cameras that ABC News provided to the youngsters, letting the network show the illegal acts without being in the position of filming it themselves.
"I said, 'I can't be here watching you get high,'" Cuomo said. "'I'm not the cops, I'm not going to bust you, but I can't be here and see you get into a worse situation. I want the opposite. I want to help you.'"
Cuomo said he believed the participants, particularly the parents, allowed the unusual access because they were convinced their stories could provide a resource. In the case of Ashley's parents, the access makes them look naive enough that Cuomo winds up becoming a tough-talking interventionist.
Worried about losing her to the streets, her parents set her up with a basement room in their house – which she proceeds to use as a base for getting high for two years. Cuomo told them that by providing Ashley with a safe place with people who love her and money, she's got no incentive to ever stop doing drugs.
She's eventually sent to a rehab center in Florida, where she struggles through withdrawal.
The parents "were really scared and they didn't want to see other people fall into what they're dealing with," Cuomo said. "That is a real and palpable truth for them. They see this and say, 'I wish I would have known when this first started happening how long and difficult this is going to be.'"
ABC provided no money to help the participants through the rehab process, Cuomo said. The network was careful during the interviewing process; for instance, ABC wanted to help get the youngsters something to eat during times they obviously needed it but didn't want to give money they could then use for drugs, he said.
Cuomo, a former "Good Morning America" newsreader, son of former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and brother of gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo, said the stories were "a rare moment of access to something that is going to get worse. I really want people to watch this and get it."
Cuomo settled into his role as a reporter and anchor at "20/20" after he didn't become one of the co-hosts of the morning show.
"What I do now is what I wanted to do," he said. "I don't want to spend my time talking to celebrities about their latest movies, about how to de-louse your kids or how to make an omelet."